"All the world's a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players;/ They have their exits and their entrances;/ And one man in his time plays many parts..." Thus begins a monologue from William Shakespeare's "As You Like It", but it is also the perfect way to begin talking about Gretchen Woelfle's new middle grade historical novel, All the World's a Stage: A Novel in Five Acts. Woelfle takes readers into Elizabethan London, right to the ground in a very human, very universal story of growing up.
Kit Buckles, just twelve years old, is an orphan, working the streets of London as a cutpurse (a petty thief) when he is caught one day at the Theatre playhouse during a production performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Rather than being turned over to the sheriff, Kit is pressed into service of the troupe, working backstage cleaning costumes and readying the grounds. At first Kit chafes at his work, but soon he learns to appreciate the theatre, being drawn into the plays by the charismatic and enigmatic Will Shakespeare, who sees a spark in Kit. It is while working for this company that Kit becomes involved in the "theft" of the Theatre playhouse, and the building of the legendary Globe Theatre, where he throws himself into carpentry work and finally finds his calling.
All the World's a Stage is first and foremost a coming of age story. It's Kit's drama that runs the show, his uncertainty about his life, his background and his future. He's never quite sure what he wants from life, except to find a place to belong, and with the acting troupe he begins to know how that feels. Though he makes few friends, among them the apple-seller Molly, he finds acceptance, something he hasn't known since the death of the grandparents. Woelfle handles the feelings of the young man very carefully, but with great assurance. His emotional motivations are well developed, and as a character, Kit is very relatable.
As historical fiction, All the World's a Stage hits it out of the park. Like last year's Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman, this captures all the grandeur and grimness that is Elizabethan London. You can practically feel the grit the groundlings stand upon to watch the players perform, or feel the bite of an April chill. Woelfle has played a little loose with details, but much of the background for her story is based on fact, and many of her characters, including Shakespeare himself, are drawn from real life. Her attention to detail is much appreciated and really pays off in the crafting of such a gripping piece of true-to-life fiction.All the World's a Stage: A Novel in Five Acts by Gretchen Woelfle (ill. by Thomas Cox)
2011, Holiday House