Beyond the Book: Background information when reading What I Was

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What I Was

by Meg Rosoff

What I Was by Meg Rosoff
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2008, 224 pages
    Jan 2009, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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Useful to Know

If you read interviews and blogs about Meg Rosoff you may find references to a book called The Dark Ages. This was the title that she first gave to her story about H and Finn, but which she later renamed What I Was.

What I Was was published as a young adult title in the UK in summer 2007, but was positioned as a book for adults in the USA - an interesting situation for an author who, according to her blog, has mixed feelings about being identified as a writer of "cross-over" novels.

Although the exact location of St Oswald's school is not, as far as we recollect, mentioned in the book, from reading Rosoff's blog entries we surmise that it is close to Dunwich in Suffolk. Suffolk is located in the southern part of East Anglia, a low-lying peninsula of eastern England (map), which was one of the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, named for the Angles of northern Germany who settled it around the 5th century. Sometime around the 11th century, Suffolk became a separate 'shire'*, but much of the area consisted of marshland and bogs (known as fens) until the 17th century when the rich alluvial land was converted into farmland (mainly arable) by systematically draining the area via drains and river diversions.

The lost city in the sea that Finn tells H about does exist, although the ravages of time have left little to be seen. According to the Dunwich website, the small village seen today was once a thriving city, with an important boat building industry and harbor, home to an impressive fleet of royal ships. However, the city was built close to cliffs made of sand and gravel that were subject to constant 'soil creep'. On the 14th January 1328 disaster struck. A hurricane drove the sea against the spit of land, shifting the shingle and effectively blocking the entrance to Dunwich harbor. The inhabitants worked hard to clear the entrance but without success, and the ship traffic moved permanently elsewhere. By the end of the 18th century, over 400 houses, 2 churches, as well as shops and windmills, had been lost to the sea.

By the middle of the 18th century, the town was effectively abandoned. By the time of the 1832 Reform Act, which abolished "rotten boroughs" like Dunwich, there were just 8 residents left in the constituency, represented in the British Parliament by two MPs!

*Shires were administrative districts created by the Anglo-Saxons, hence the many English counties ending with shire, Hampshire, Nottinghamshire, Wiltshire etc. The shires were governed by shire reeves (a serf elected by the other serfs to supervise the lands for a local lord). Shire reeves became known simply as sheriffs.

Article by Lucia Silva

This article was originally published in January 2008, and has been updated for the January 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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