Review of Ironhead, or, Once a Young Lady

Ironhead, or, Once a Young Lady
by Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem; trans. from Dutch by Kristen Gehrman
Middle School, High School    Em Querido/Levine Querido    368 pp.    g
2/22    978-1-61614-048-0    $18.99

In this smoothly translated historical-fiction romp set in 1808, lively, propulsive storytelling whirls us through the countryside of what is now Belgium, France, and ­Germany with Constance, one of Napoleon’s more unusual soldiers. “Stance” has always been acerbic, rebellious, and capable. When her father marries her off to a middle-aged businessman, she sees only one way out: she puts on men’s clothes and joins the army. Stance’s defection from the marriage contract wreaks havoc on the family, especially on her hapless brother Pier, who, in the company of a corrupt customs officer, is sent to retrieve her. Van Rijckeghem evokes Napoleonic wartime chaos and the story’s fractious characters with colorful lucidity, comedy, and drama. Stance and Pier alternate as narrators; the tale swings between the former’s rash irreverence and boldness and the latter’s timidity and physical ineptitude. Throughout the story — with its hilarity and drastic eventfulness, its duels and battles, unexpected lovers, and lesson in how a girl can use a bellows to facilitate peeing while standing — Stance and Pier mature and become more resolutely themselves. Though the book ends as Stance sets off in quest of the woman she loves, the real heart here is the affection that grows between two very different siblings.

From the March/April 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Deirdre Baker
Deirdre F. Baker
Deirdre F. Baker, a reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine and the Toronto Star, teaches children’s literature at the University of Toronto. The author of Becca at Sea (Groundwood), she is currently at work on a sequel—written in the past tense.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.