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Harvard Yard    by William Martin order for
Harvard Yard
by William Martin
Order:  USA  Can
Warner, 2003 (2003)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Harvard Yard intertwines a history of the university (from its beginnings to modern times) with the mystery of what's happened to a lost Shakespearian play, Love's Labour Won. The tale begins in 1605 England well before the idea is conceived of Harvard as a place of learning, when a butcher named Robert Harvard enlists his friend Will Shakespeare's help as he goes a-courting. Subsequently the playwright gifts Robert's newborn son John with the prompt book for his new play. On his deathbed (struck down by the bubonic plague), Robert reminds John Harvard that 'a man will be known by his books' and these words of wisdom remain with the family through the centuries to come in America.

The story fast forwards to modern times when rare book dealer Peter Fallon, hero of the author's previous Back Bay, encourages his son's application to Harvard, and is set on a risky treasure hunt into the past by his riddling old friend Ridley. From then on, the author alternates between past and present, revealing the folio's adventures as a series of holders struggle with their consciences (plays were considered the work of the devil in puritanical 1600s Boston) and hide it in different places as historical events force its relocation. The guardian to follow John Harvard is young Isaac Wedge, one of the first students to be enrolled as the college was being built. Isaac finds the manuscript where John hid it amongst 400 books he donated to the library, loses it, and seeks it again in England. The Wedge descendants continue this hide-and-seek role.

William Martin follows the path of the lost play through all the big historical events, from the Black Death to civil war between Cavaliers and Roundheads in England, and on to America for the Salem witch trials, the American Revolution, the Civil War (in which a Harvard regiment played a part), the Great Fire in Boston, the sinking of the Titanic, World War I and II and the development of the atomic bomb, the Cold War, the 60s and Vietnam. There's a resurrectionist, a runaway slave and early feminists, one of whom gains control of the manuscript and decrees that 'When women are educated at Harvard ... Harvard shall have the benefit of Love's Labour Won'. Clues are left in 'commonplace books ... blank pages to be filled with literary quotes, meditations, musings ... brain droppings'.

The story is heavy on history and light on mystery, though the modern shenanigans do include menace and murder as Fallon proceeds with a leisurely investigation, helped by an old flame, now divorced. The ending is most satisfactory, including a message from the past 'And when we're done, and all songs sung, we cry, Love's Labours Won.'

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