At Her Majesty’s Request

Although the title sounds reminiscent of a James Bond thriller, At Her Majesty’s Request is actually a biography of an African princess who became a ward of sorts of Queen Victoria in the 1850s. Her christened name is Sarah Forbes Bonita. As a child, she is captured by another African nation who murders who family and destroys her village. She is kept for two years as a prisoner and then about to be ritually sacrificed when a British naval officer intervenes. She is given to him as a gift to Queen Victoria.

Queen Victoria takes an interest in Sarah Forbes Bonetta (nicknamed Sally). She is brought to live with a family in England, raised and educated as an upper class Englishwoman, sporadically visits the Queen and counts her children as playmates. However, patronage is a two-edged sword. Sally can only obey when the queen orders her to one home or another, to one country or another, and finally chooses her husband for her.

The book is slight, only 140 pages. It is written for older elementary school or middle school students (which I didn’t realize when I bought it sight unseen; it had been on my books to read list for a long time. Amazon lists the age range from 4-8. I think it’s more like from 8-12). I found the excerpts from Sally’s actual letters and Queen Victoria’s diaries the most interesting. Walter Dean Myers does a good job piecing together Sally’s life from these few fragments and in putting it into the context of the time. However, like any sketch, we catch only a glimpse of the subject, and can know only externals in broad strokes. What remains is the sense of wonder that it happened at all; this is one of those true stories you never learn in school.

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