Embark on a historical journey through the 12th century in search of a musical dream! Below, author Malve von Hassell discusses the inspiration, history, music, and characters in her new coming-of-age novel Alina: A Song for the Telling.
“…an excellent middle grade historical fiction [that will also] interest a wider readership.”— Nengath, Goodreads Reviewer
About Alina: A Song for the Telling:: Alina: A Song For the Telling is a coming-of-age story of a young woman from Provence in the 12th century. Although written for middle grade/young adult, this timeless and classic tale will be enjoyed by readers of all ages.
“You should be grateful, my girl. You have no dowry, and I am doing everything I can to get you settled. You are hardly any man’s dream.” Alina’s brother, Milos, pulled his face into a perfect copy of Aunt Marci’s sour expression, primly pursing his mouth. He had got her querulous tone just right.
I pinched my lips together, trying not to laugh. But it was true; Aunt Marci had already introduced me to several suitors. So far I had managed to decline their suits politely.
Maybe Alina’s aunt was right. How could she possibly hope to become a musician, a trobairitz, as impoverished as she was and without the status of a good marriage?
But fourteen-year-old Alina refuses to accept the oppressing life her strict aunt wants to impose upon her. When the perfect opportunity comes along for her to escape, she and her brother embark on a journey through the Byzantine Empire all the way to Jerusalem.
Alina soon finds herself embroiled in the political intrigue of noble courts as she fights to realize her dream of becoming a female troubadour.
- What inspired you to write the book?
I always was fascinated by everything I read about Jerusalem, a place of heartbreaking bloodshed and political turmoil over the centuries, an intersection of three major religions, each with a significant emotional stake in the city, and a crossroads of trade and culture in the Middle East that links the western and northernmost reaches of Europe with remote regions in Asia and Africa.
- One of the central historical figures in your book is French nobleman Stephen, Count of Sancerre. Tell us more about him and why you choose to include him in Alina’s story.
The historical record shows Count Stephen to have been a remarkable individual; in some respects, one could even describe him as progressive given the context of his time. The more I learned about him, the more I wanted to include him in my story. He traveled to Jerusalem in order to accept Queen Sibylla’s hand in marriage. He was an entirely suitable candidate in terms of rank and wealth. Meanwhile, the historical record leaves us with an intriguing blank. He spent a few months in Jerusalem and then for reasons unknown returned home. I decided to fill in that blank while remaining within the realm of what was historically possible.
- You clearly have a love of historical research. Tell us about the research you did for this book.
Research has been part of my training as a cultural anthropologist and as a translator. I love searching for details and discovering surprising facts about places and individuals. Sometimes my research takes me down endlessly intricate rabbit holes and brings me to places I never expected. It is sheer joy to be able to do this. The most rewarding aspect of this is interacting with people far more knowledgeable than I about a particular period and benefitting from their generosity in sharing information and resources.
- What is your favorite period of history?
The 12th and 13th centuries always stunned and amazed me when I learned about the speed with which information traveled in those times despite the fact that there were no modern means of conveying it. In some ways, those times were highly advanced when it comes to trade and the exchange of information and the dispersal of art, literature, and science across Europe and the Middle East. Meanwhile, hands down, my favorite period is the Renaissance, and perhaps one day, I can write about Florence in the 15th and 16th century.
- One of the things I love most about Alina is that she is so ahead of her time, yet she doesn’t seem out of place in the historical time period she’s placed in. Who and what inspired her character for you?
We live in a time when women again and again are breaking through boundaries and rising to new challenges. Meanwhile, throughout history there have been women who rebelled and fought to forge their own path despite enormous restrictions. I wanted to create a young woman who felt the strictures of her upbringing but was determined to move beyond them. For Alina, music and lyrics allow her a voice at a time when women generally were expected to remain in the background.
- Alina goes on a great journey from her homeland of France to Jerusalem. Have you ever visited France or Jerusalem? Why did you choose to set your story there?
I have been fortunate enough to visit France; one day, hopefully, I will get to see Jerusalem. The Provence is a jewel among jewels of beautiful places in the world, with a rich and complex history, and moreover inextricably linked to music and poetry. When I began to think about my story, I began with the notion of a journey, and I was drawn to the remarkable feat accomplished by people in the 12th and 13th centuries setting out on long, arduous, and perilous travels to places unknown in pursuit of their faith and dreams of fame and fortune.
- Music and lyrics play such a large role in Alina’s story. Where did you find the lyrics to the songs she sings? Why did you choose a lute for her instrument?
When researching the 12th century, I became increasingly interested in the history of Trobairitz, the female counterpart to the famous troubadours. There were not many, only twenty whose names we know, and their time of activity was less than 100 years. In their lyrics, they moved far beyond the traditions of the troubadours. Like the troubadours, they often sang about courtly love, however, with a much sharper, more grounded, and even mocking tone. They even wrote about political and social inequality and questioned the prevailing mores of the times that silenced women and relegated them to the realms of motherhood.
The lyrics in my book are inspired by the lyrics composed by both troubadours and trobairitz. Alina’s instrument is a lute; her father taught her how to play it. It is also the instrument most commonly used by troubadours and trobairitz, although readers might be astounded by the range of instruments played in the 12th century.
- Alina meets many different characters on the road, all from different walks of life, from social status to political to religious. Introduce readers to the main characters in the book and tell us more about them and why you choose to have Alina meet them on her journey.
The fictional characters such as Beryl, the maid servant, Aisha, the slave girl, and Sarah, the wife of a Jewish scholar in Jerusalem, all force Alina to consider her own status and to develop a better understanding of both the benefits and the limitations of her place in society. By watching others navigate various situations, she also learns how to operate within such limitations and to move beyond them when the situation required. Alina also gets to know Queen Sibylla, the daughter of the king of Jerusalem. In historical accounts, Sibylla at times is portrayed as a beautiful woman trapped in the complex situation of her times, at times as manipulative and even devious in seeking to accomplish her goals, but always remarkable. The other characters at the court, both fictional and historical, introduce Alina to a setting, where numerous powerful figures vie for control, in some respects remarkably like the political environment of the present day.
- Although Alina’s brother Milos constantly gets on her nerves, she’d do anything for him and they have a typical brother/sister relationship. Tell us more about her brother and also the inspiration behind the character.
I grew up as the youngest of three children, with two older brothers who alternated between annoying me and protecting me. We were raised by our parents to look out for each other and stand up for each other wherever possible. Hence it was easy to imagine the relationship between Alina and her brother; they irritate each other and often misread the intentions of the other, and at the same time, they are bound by unshakeable care, loyalty, and affection.
About the Author:
Malve von Hassell is a writer, researcher, and translator. Born in Italy, she spent part of her childhood in Belgium and Germany before moving to the United States. She lives in Southampton, New York, close to the ocean and a bay beach where she meets flying sea robins and turtles on her morning walks with her rescue dog Loki. She enjoys reading, playing chess with her son, gardening, anything to do with horses, and dreams of someday touring Mongolia on horseback.
Her works include the children’s picture book, Letters from the Tooth Fairy, written in response to her son’s letters to the tooth fairy; The Falconer’s Apprentice, her first historical fiction novel for young readers; The Amber Crane, a historical fiction novel set in Germany in the 17th century, and Alina: A Song for the Telling, a coming-of-age story of a young woman from Provence in the 12th century who dreams of being a musician.
Check out the author’s website for more information about her book, blog, and of course von Hassell herself!
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