Posts Tagged ‘1967 novel’

The Owl Service by Alan Garner ~ 1967. This edition: Collins, 1998. Paperback. ISBN: 0-00-675401-5. 224 pages.

Alan Garner’s melding of Welsh myth and 1960s’ teen angst tale has, over the years, become something of a legend of its own.

Pondered over by literary folklore scholars and a wide range of students from its publication fifty years ago to today, analyzed to the nth degree, filmed in 1969 with immense popular success, this novel just goes on and on.

Here’s the set up.

Teenage English step-siblings Alison and Roger accompany their recently married parents to Alison’s dead father’s house in Wales. It’s technically Alison’s house now, for it was left to her in her father’s will, bypassing her mother to avoid death duties. Roger’s father is divorced from his first wife, who was blatantly unfaithful to her husband; this situation has left Roger with a serious chip on his shoulder.

On site are three Welsh employees: gardener Huw, housekeeper Nancy, and Nancy’s teenage son Gwyn, odd-job boy.

Huw is viewed by the English visitors as something of a half-wit; he tends to do a lot of standing around gazing into the distance, and is continually making strangely phrased pronouncements. (Big Hint: Huw is not the fool he seems. Or at least not in the conventional sense.)

Nancy seems normal enough, if a bit high-strung. She is very much wound up about class distinctions, and warns her son Gwyn about a.) fraternizing with lowly Huw, and b.) getting chummy with upper-class Roger and Alison.

Gwyn pays this no mind, being attracted to all three of the forbidden ones for vastly different reasons, though he is about to run afoul of Roger. (And Roger’s dad. And Alison’s mother. And his own mother. Well, pretty well everybody, really. Except for Huw. This is another Big Hint.)

Shortly after the newly blended family’s arrival at the Welsh country house Alison, in bed with a minor ailment, hears persistent scratching in the ceiling of her room. Gwyn investigates, going up into the attic through a hatch in the ceiling. There  is evidence of rodent activity, but more intriguingly, Gwyn finds a complete set of elaborately decorated china dishes stacked in a corner. He brings a plate down with him to show Alison, and hey, presto! – we’re off.

The plate depicts an arrangement of flowers, but Alison immediately sees that the pattern also forms an owl, and she is mesmerized by it. She decides to trace the pattern onto paper, matching up body and head, and when done cuts the completed paper owl out. Over and over she does this, with some mysterious results: the paper owls disappear overnight, as does the pattern from the plate. Hmm…

Here’s the plate. For real. Seeing this pattern is what set folklorist Alan Garner off on the plot of this novel.

This is where Garner steps in with his retelling of the tragic Blodeuwedd story from the medieval Celtic folklore epic The Mabinogion. In this story, a man is cursed to never have a human wife. His wizard uncle then creates a maiden out of flowers for his nephew; the two wed, but the maiden falls in love with another man, and the two plot to murder the husband. This sets off another curse in which the flower maiden is turned into an owl, doomed to spend eternity replaying the story in each new generation. (Or something to that effect.)

So here we have Alison being possessed by the shade of Blodeuwedd, with Roger and Gwyn taking on the roles of her two lovers. Metaphorically speaking, that is. No actual lovemaking takes place, not on the page, anyway. And not really out of scene, either, from what hints Garner gives us. Though there is no doubt that everyone is thinking about it.

All. The. Time. Teenagers, raging hormones, the whole supernatural replaying of a tragic love triangle. Yeah, it’s a hot, hot summer, in more ways than one.

There’s a load of other stuff all going on concurrently. Alison’s confliction with her attraction to Gwyn (and maybe to Roger?) which her mother fears and forbids. (Interesting side note on the mother: she drives the story from the background; we never see her, though all of the characters refer to her and appear to view her as one who must not be upset or disappointed or crossed in any way.)

Roger’s father, though wealthy, is of a lower social status than his new wife, which is good for some malicious digs from here and there. Also, his divorced wife is notoriously promiscuous, going from man to man (or so rumour has it) with the result that son Roger is a prickly mass of resentment and fear that anyone will mention her to him.

Gwyn is feeling stuck between two worlds himself. Brought up by his mother, father unknown, he has managed to attain a scholarship to a prestigious school, and has flourished there and surpassed his own mother in social standing, which she bitterly resents, though she has wished this for him.

Roger and Gwyn bristle at each other, swapping insult for insult. In between times they go about together in relative harmony. Alison floats about, never committing to anything, tracing and cutting out her paper owls with increasing intensity, and giving by her very presence – all unawakened virginity – a generous dose of sexual tension to the scene.

As the summer goes on, the supernatural echoes from the awakened curse grow louder and louder until things come at last to a dramatic head. The climax is cut short by an unlikely saviour, in a much-too-simple way, and we are left at the end of this sketchy sort of tale wondering what the heck just happened, really.

An interesting novel, this. It really shouldn’t work, but for the most part it does. The ending is utterly inconclusive; the spell is laid much too easily; we know this can’t possibly be the final solution to Blodeuwedd’s reawakening.

Or is it?

This is a tough one to define a numerical rating for. As a novel, it’s hard to really get into, hard to find a conventional narrative thread; it’s all muddled up.

But on the other hand, one can’t quite look away. If you have the background knowlege of the Bloedeuwedd story, things click a lot more readily; later editions have all sorts of forewords and afterwords and author’s notes, but to read it cold (as it were) must have been a bit mind-bending when the book first came out.

Promoted as a “young adult” book, this one is indeed that. Older adults will find it intriguing, too. As might younger readers, though it might well induce a few nightmares. Those claws scratching in the ceiling, those clover flowers made of claws, those vanishing owls…


Okay, then.





Read Full Post »

it's an old country j.b. priestley 001It’s An Old Country by J.B. Priestley ~ 1967. This edition: Heinemann, 1967. Hardcover. 247 pages.

My rating: 2.5/10

I’m a sincere J.B. Priestley fan, so this rating and following review pain me greatly. I’ll try to get it over with quickly, so I can put the book away (far away) and not have to look at it and be reminded of my disappointment.

It’s 1960-something, and 35-year-old economic historian Tom Adamson has just buried his mother in a Sydney, Australia graveyard. Tom is by birth English, having come to Australia as a toddler with his embittered mother and wee sister when his actor-artist father suddenly abandoned his family back in the old country.

Raised to scorn his absent parent, Tom has had a disquieting experience when, in her last days of illness, his mother hints that there was some sort of mystery as to why Dad cut all ties, and a deeper reason behind it all.

So Tom takes leave from his job as a Colonial Economic History professor at the local university, flies to England, and proceeds to seek his father, whom he feels is still alive (he’d know if it weren’t so, our author assures us, Tom being apparently blessed with some sort of superior filial intuition) and perhaps yearning for his long-lost son.

Tom falls in with a ne’er-do-well cousin, who in the intervals of between hitting Tom up for substantial “loans” of cash actually proves fairly useful in providing introductions to people who can give snippets of information regarding Tom’s elusive father. We meet a vast array of potentially intriguing characters – a seedy private enquiry agent, a senile noblewoman, an elegant European jetsetter (with whom Tom has an ultimately unsatisfying sexual escapade), various actors, artists, writers, pub-owners, ex-lovers of the father, ex-employers of the father, fellow workers of the father’s numerous jobs – an immense cast of secondary characters, and each one as sketchily portrayed and forgettable as the last.

I’ll tell you what Tom discovers, to save you from plodding through this thing for yourself. (Consider this your spoiler alert, though that very term implies something suspenseful or exciting, which is far from what occurs in the book.)

Turns out that Dad’s letters home were suppressed by a jealous lover – he’d really meant to return to his wife at some point but said lover maneuvered weak-willed Dad in a different direction. After failing at reaching success as either an actor or a painter, Dad enlisted in the army, fought in the 2nd World War, came out to a dismal civilian life, passed dud cheques, served time in jail, changed his name, and worked at a series of progressively less rewarding jobs until Tom finds him slaving away as an underpaid waiter in a South Devon hotel.

There is an underwhelming reunion, notable for its über-masculine soberness. Tom promises to set Dad up with an annuity and a new life in London, with the intimation that one of Dad’s old girlfriends who still carries a torch for the ineffectual but generally decent old guy will step in to provide female companionship.

Tom himself has found a love interest in a 25-year-old book editress, and the two find they share a sniffy dislike of the way English society is sliding into chaos – beatnicks versus the old guard – and decide that the happiest future shared career will be in working for the U.N. In a more developed part of the world of course: “(D)oes it have to be Ghana or Cambodia or Ecuador?…Couldn’t we make it Austria or Thailand or Mexico, my darling?”

The end.

It’s an Old Country fails to live up to expectation on every front. The plot is boring. The characters are strictly cardboard – even our “hero” Tom fails to come across as multi-dimensional in any way, shape or form. The dialogue is stilted. The style throughout reads like a first draft, a mere roughed-out outline without any living detail.

Even Priestley’s “big idea” – a reliable trope with this author is his inclusion of an intellectual motif to each book – is vague  and understated. In this novel, the gist seems to be that the youth of the day are sloppy and unambitious, a bunch of guitar-playing beatnicks, but perhaps that’s to be expected after the way the elder generation has mucked up the world with its wars and class divisions, and that the old guard is overdue for toppling. The “old country” – England, and also its colonial partner Australia – is fixed in its downward spiral – time for a forward-thinking man (that would be our Tom) to abandon ship. Hurray for tradition, it’s been swell but it’s over, see you later.

There are tiny glimpses here and there of the author’s true potential – micro-episodes and lonely glistening, gliding phrases – but so few and far between that they merely serve to remind the reader of how much better this book should be.

One could charitably excuse the absolute flatness of this dull, dull novel by maintaining that after over forty years of plugging out work after work after work the author was scraping the bottom of the barrel, getting old and tired. How then to explain the excellence of the book before this one, the quite stellar Lost Empires, published in 1965? Two years shouldn’t make that much difference. We know the man still has it in him, so where is it here?

It’s an Old Country is a hack piece, trading on the author’s good name, an underwritten, too sparse yet plodding novel that should never have made it to print.

In my opinion.

Over and out.

Read Full Post »

i heard the owl call my name margaret craven 001

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven ~ 1967. This edition: Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1977. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7720-0617-2. 138 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This is a slight, quiet, non-sentimental though rather romanticized novel about a young, terminally ill Anglican priest and his short residence in the Tsawataineuk (First Nations) village at the head of remote Kingcome inlet, on the southwestern British Columbia coast, opposite the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The time frame is contemporary with its writing, in the mid 1960s.

The doctor said to the Bishop, “So you see, my lord, your young ordinand can live no more than three years and doesn’t know it. Will you tell him, and what will you do with him?”

The Bishop said to the doctor, “Yes, I’ll tell him, but not yet. If I tell him now, he’ll try too hard. How much time has he for an active life?”

“A little less than two years if he’s lucky.”

“So short a time to learn so much? It leaves me no choice. I shall send him to my hardest parish. I shall send him to Kingcome on patrol of the Indian villages.”

“Then I hope you’ll pray for him, my lord.”

But the Bishop only answered gently that it was where he would wish to go if he were young again, and in the ordinand’s place.

So off goes young Mark Brian, the new vicar of Kingcome, under the able supervision of a young native man of similar age, Jim Wallace. Mark and Jim gravely size each other up, setting the tone for the rest of the story. Mark’s only authority is in the religious arena – the villagers respect him as a symbolic leader representing the church – but in every other aspect of his daily life he is as a child compared to the capable and wilderness-savvy people around him.

Mark is in some ways wise beyond his years – perhaps it is because of prospective hand of death stretched over him? – yes, this is slightly cynical but one can’t help but feel that our young protagonist is just  the tiniest bit too good to be entirely true – and he settles down to learn from the people of Kingcome how best to deal with this strange new place he has found himself in.

Various incidents occur, and Mark comes nicely up to scratch in the eyes of the villagers, who by the end of Mike’s worldly tenure (he does indeed perish, though not of his mysterious ailment) have accepted him as one of their own. And Mike himself has apparently succeeded in preparing his soul for the life everlasting which his religion promises, and has done some earthly good in the meantime.

Margaret Craven has created a novel which is deeply appreciative of the region in which the story is set, and calmly descriptive of the very real problems of the Tsawataineuk people as their ancient culture is quickly being changed by the influx of modern ways and the influence of the non-native colonizers and religious missionaries.

Each incident is treated with sober even-handedness, as the author succeeds in seeing each angle to every encounter. The “old native ways” are perhaps seen through slightly rose-tinted spectacles, but by and large this is a very fair depiction of an extended culture clash.

The story is overly simplistic in many ways, of course – the book is, after all, extremely short – and I found it just a little hard to wrap my head around a fatal illness with no obvious signs except for a progressive weakness.

Everyone in Mark’s world appears to know of his fate – his church superiors because of the doctor’s diagnosis, and his twin sister because someone has obviously tipped her off, and the motherly native ladies of the village because of some special intuitiveness – but the man himself is clueless until very close to the end. He appears to be experiencing no pain or obvious symptoms, and there is no mention of any sort of palliative treatment. What the heck is wrong with him?! Inquiring minds (okay, mine) want to know! I can only surmise that it is that special fictional fatal ailment we run across here and there, diagnosed by clever physicians who can accurately predict the likely time frame of their subject’s demise. Would that our real doctors were this wise…

But that is my only real complaint against this likeable story. It hits all of the buttons, and was a commercial success some years after its low-key first publication, when a reissue sent it rocketing up bestseller lists.

Author Margaret Craven was an American journalist, and she travelled in the area of the setting of  I Heard the Owl Call My Name for some months in 1962, which experience inspired the story. The novel was very well received in the Pacific Northwest, and in British Columbia in particular, where it remains a recommended novel in the B.C. high school English curriculum. It was also made into a modestly successful television movie in 1973.

The novel receives a rare favourable mention for a book by a non-native writer on the American Indians in Children’s Literature list – see Debbie Reese’s AICL blog – though it is also sometimes viewed by modern critics as depicting outdated attitudes and ideas.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name is indeed a dated book, published almost 50 years ago as it was, but it retains merit for its articulate and admiring depiction of a people and a place. The gentle fictional melodrama of the doomed priest seems to me slightly secondary to the “capture” of the very real setting.

Here is arecent photo of St. George's Anglican Church in Kingcome Village.

Here is a recent photo of St. George’s Anglican Church in Kingcome Village, consecrated in 1938. The totem pole beside the church which depicts the four First Nations of Kingcome Inlet was dedicated in 1958 as a memorial to King George V.



Read Full Post »

all the little live things wallace stegnerAll the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner ~ 1967. This edition: Viking Press, 1967. Hardcover. 248 pages.

My rating: 10/10

This attempted review has been simmering away at the back of my mind for months and months. Getting it posted on New Year’s Eve day takes a great weight off of my conscience, even though I am not doing the novel the credit it deserves by this brief discussion.

Since reading the book way back in March of 2013, I have wondered how best to communicate the special quality it has, and its deep appeal, which is much more fundamental than its (highly engaging) storyline. This is where I bemoan my lack of a formal education in writing literary analysis; I know what I want to say but I don’t have the vocabulary to say it, so I fall back on the easy things: I liked the book. It moved me. Beautifully written. Memorable characters. An evocative picture of a time and a place.

These are things I can say of so many books I am fortunate enough to have encountered over an expansive reading life, but which do not at all illuminate the qualities that make this (or any other) book so special, this writer (or any other) so immediately compelling.

So, a review. Where to even start? How about here, with the front flyleaf material of the first edition, to set the story up, and to give me a lead in adding a very few thoughts of my own.

Why does the older generation feel as it does about what is happening in the world today? Wallace Stegner answers the question, with sympathy and understanding, for one good human individual trying to come to terms with his world while retaining his own integrity. In a novel that probes deeply into this and other aspects of contemporary life, he shows his narrative skill, his great gifts of evocation, and his eloquent intelligence at their mature best.

Fulsome praise indeed, even allowing for a publisher’s bias! But yes, in this case, not overstated. The author is addressing one of the Big Questions of his time, the mid 1960s, which is to say, the great divide between the generations; the wide movement of youth (and relative youth) to reject categorically the ethics, morals and social standards of their elders, and to try to remake the world into a new utopia. We’re talking about hippies, here. And the California setting is the seething nerve centre of this societal battleground, full of lines drawn in the sand and unwitting trespasses and deliberate provocations. Change is in the air, and no one is immune to its effects.

Joe Allston and his wife, two Easterners in their sixties, retire to California in search of peace after the death of their wayward son. Their paradise is invaded by various parasites – not only by the gopher and the rose blight, the king snake and the hawk, but also by a neighbour with a bulldozer, bent on “development.” Jim Peck, a bearded young cultist, builds a treehouse on their property and starts a University of the Free Mind, complete with yoga, marijuana, and free-wheeling sex. Most damaging of all, it is invaded by Marian Catlin, an attractive young wife and mother, affirming all the hope and love that the Allstons believe in, who carries within herself seeds as destructive as any in the malevolent nature that surrounds them.

The relationship between the two couples, the older Allstons and the younger Catlins, is beautifully portrayed, and I felt it was one of the most admirable aspects of the novel. Stegner delicately captures the nuances of friendship, unspoken sexual attraction which does not have to be acted upon, and the balance of power between youth and age. Joe and Marian strike sparks off each other, but the relationship never turns ugly; all four spouses are involved in the relationship and each turns to his or her partner for support and comfort as needed. For the core issue of the story is this: Marian is pregnant, with a much-desired second child. (The Catlin’s first child, a young daughter, is very much loved and wanted, and is a charming girl, nicely handled by the author.) Marian also has terminal cancer, and she has rejected treatment in order that she can bring the pregnancy to term.

A difficult plot to see any happy way out of, isn’t it? I’ll tell you right now: no feel-good miracles occur.

Here’s an admirable review which eloquently puts into words my own elusive thoughts on the novel: Bookslut: All the Little Live Things. Please read.

This is my very first Wallace Stegner, and I know full well it won’t be my last.

Read Full Post »

the country cousin betty cavannaThe Country Cousin by Betty Cavanna ~1967. This edition: William Morrow & Co., 1971. Hardcover. Library of Congress #: 67-21735. 222 pages.

My rating: 5/10.

An equal balance between interestingly vintage (Paris in the sixties!) and appallingly dated (chauvinistic boyfriends!) The author did her research for this slight little teen tome, and it shows, mostly in a good way. An interesting – if feather-weight – 40-year-old read.

Bonus – great cover! Tells you everything you need to know right there up front, doesn’t it?


My reading is all over the map right now. It was a toss-up this morning whether to take a stab at reviewing Stephen Fry’s sex-and-bad-language-soaked novel The Hippopotamus, or this mild little vintage teen-girl romance. But since my last review was of a very contemporary (well, 1999 – not really that contemporary, though it seems but a moment ago in some ways), sex-filled book – Fits Like a Rubber Dress by Roxane Ward – I decided to keep things all mixed up; from one I wouldn’t dare to give my dear old mum to one she’s enjoyed with gentle enthusiasm. (As did I.)

Melinda Hubbard – Mindy – has grown up on a large farm in Pennsylvania, and now, recently graduated from high school and facing all the “next step” big decisions, is at a loss with how best to proceed. Her beloved older brother Jack, her opposite in almost every way – strong, intense, smart and focussed, where Mindy is soft, mild, merely average in academics and waffling – is studying medicine and has just married his college sweetheart, Annette.

Bridesmaid Mindy takes part in the wedding in a fog, brushing off inquiries as to her future plans with vague evasions; she’s done the proper thing and has applied to several colleges, but is ashamed to disclose that her applications have all been denied because she hasn’t met the academic standards. Her mother is pushing her towards taking a secretarial course, but Mindy is less than enthusiastic about that, not being able to picture herself sitting at a typewriter all day.

A saviour appears in the person of Mindy’s older cousin Alix. Recently widowed – we find out that her young husband was killed in Vietnam – Alix has taken the insurance money and opened a clothing store in Bryn Mawr, catering to the well-heeled college girls and their mothers. On an impulse, Alix invites her droopy cousin Mindy to come and live with her for the summer, to work in the shop – called “The Country Cousin” (after a real-life dress shop, as we find out in the author’s note at the end) – and gain some experience in the retail trade while considering her next move.

Mindy is agreeable – though one couldn’t call her “enthusiastic” – it’s really not in her nature, such a strong emotion, you know! – and soon is immersed in the retail clothing trade. If there’s one thing Mindy does enjoy, it’s pretty clothes, and we learn that she is something of an accomplished seamstress herself, designing and creating her own dresses and so on; a talent which will end up leading her to her true vocation.

Mindy meets several young men, and dabbles with romance for the first time in her life. Handsome Peter, a friend of Mindy’s brother Jack, is from a wealthy family, and has a succession of girls trailing after him, as he lackadaisically dallies with them while waiting for just the right one to come along. “I’m going to marry a rich girl,” he flat-out states to Mindy one day, letting her know that while she’s okay fun for a casual date or two, she shouldn’t get her hopes up. Realistic Mindy never really thought that Peter was for her, but she did daydream a bit, so rough and ready, definitely not wealthy and far from urbane Dana, another friend of Jack’s, on his way to study Oriental Languages at the Sorbonne in the fall term, looks very much like a second best in the boyfriend department.

Dana persists in his efforts to improve Jack’s sister’s intellectual capabilities, lending Mindy books on art, and carting her off to concerts and picnics in the country. He – and Peter, and Alix as well – all seem quite concerned with Mindy’s personal appearance. She is self-admittedly on the plump side, so with all of these people in her new life dropping comments to the effect that she’d be better-looking if she slimmed down, Mindy resolves to do just that, and tries to forget her butter-and-cream farm girl tastes, and to subsist on black coffee and a slice of toast for breakfast, and salad for lunch, and so on.

The pounds miraculously melt away, and everyone oohs and ahs about the improvement in her looks, and Mindy is quite smug with herself.  And this is where I had my biggest issues with this novel. The boys in her life, and her mentoring older cousin, mention to her that she’s too fat, and that she should slim down, so she unquestionably goes along with it, and does. She drops five pounds and everyone is all over her – “Good girl! Such an improvement!” Well, five pounds isn’t all that much, is it? I can’t imagine what their conception of “too plump” must have been if that made such a tremendous difference, and the fact that they were all so rude as to say such things to her rather floors me. It was obviously socially acceptable at the time to do so; Mindy takes it without a murmur. Anyway, this bit bothered me.

So, along goes Mindy, cooperating in her rather wishy-washy way with what everyone thinks she should be doing. Alix carts her along on buying trips to New York, and Mindy is introduced to the dress trade, and realizes for the first time that perhaps she might have a vocation after all, that of fashion design. She and Alix come up with a scheme to go to Paris on a selling trip, taking along clothing sample and taking orders from the community of Americans living there, who are desperate for well-made, reasonably priced clothes; Paris apparently offers only haute couture and shoddy department store dresses, nothing in the mid-range. This venture succeeds beyond their expectations, and of course they meet up with Dana, and romance predictably blossoms in the soft Parisian air.

A pleasant depiction of the time and place and people; the Paris of the “Americans abroad” is captured very well, as is the middle- and upper-class college town atmosphere of Bryn Mawr. As a “working girl”, Mindy is frequently reminded of her place in that society – at the lower end of the food chain – but she realizes that there is a dignity and self-satisfaction about doing whatever it is that you find yourself engaged in competently and cheerfully. A teeny bit preachy, with a Great Big Moral gently tromping about, elephant-in-the-room-style, but not offensively so. Betty Cavanna is so very genuinely earnest, and her heroines are so reasonably realistic, even to their modest goals and not-very-dreadful dilemmas, that it is hard to find much to object to. Middle-class girls are “people” too!

All in all, a typical bildungsroman of the era, which holds up well to a 21st Century nostalgic re-read, if you’re into dabbling with such stuff. I’m sure the junior high school girls of the time enjoyed it greatly; the old ex-library copy I have is very well read indeed.

Now, I wonder what I should read next …

Read Full Post »