Posts Tagged ‘1996 Novel’

A Peaceful Retirement by Miss Read (pseudonym of Dora Saint) ~ 1996. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1996. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7181-4123-7. 152 pages.

Poor Miss Read! She has been banished to a dark corner of our bookcases by fiat from my spouse/co-reader – he can’t abide her, which distresses me (mildly) because I quite like these subfusc village dramas. If we can call them dramas; that might indeed by overstating the magnitude of the action here.

I tried once again to stick up for Miss Read when he caught me deep(ish) in this one a few days ago. “I know they’re not exactly exciting,” I said, “but think of it this way: when nothing else seems to click they’re decent place-holders, requiring no effort whatsoever on the reader’s part. They’re not bad books. Maybe a bit priggish occasionally…”

“Aha!” he said. (Or an exclamation to that effect.) “Priggish. Exactly. I think that’s why they annoy me.”

So there you have it. One man’s opinion. But I will still read them, especially when nothing else appeals. So soothing, like vanilla pudding or something equally mild.

This is the last book in the long Fairacre series (20 books), which started back in 1955 with Village School, a fictional account of the observations of headmistress “Miss Read” in a two-room school in the invented village of Fairacre.

Rich with well-observed detail, ex-schoolteacher Dora Saint’s many low-key novels and novellas give a fascinating glimpse into ever-changing rural England over the four decades in which they are set. The narrator in these particular books (there is also another non-school-centered series set in another fictional village, Thrush Green), happily unmarried spinster-by-choice Miss Read, is a woman of stern morals and quiet wit; she observes, records, and only very occasionally makes an out-loud statement on things which pass under her eye. She has learned early on that the schoolmistress inhabits a specific niche in the village hierarchy – slightly above shopkeeper, just below vicar – and woe betide the unwary soul who steps out of place or makes unpopular pronouncements.

In A Peaceful Retirement, our Miss Read has recently suffered several mild strokes. Her doctor has advised leaving her work, which she does with good grace but some regret; she feels like she hasn’t quite finished with that job, but she sets her sights on taking care of herself, fully relinquishing her status and retiring to a small village a short distance away from Fairacre, Beech Green.

Here Miss Read discovers that an apparently free woman still in her capable years is seen to be the natural choice for a vast number of volunteer positions; she must become adept at saying “No!” rather forcefully in order to maintain even a modicum of inoccupation; the “peaceful” of the title is ever so slightly ironic.

So what happens in A Peaceful Retirement? A whole lot, but not much.

Our narrator copes with an old admirer, now unhappily married, who comes to lay out his woes for her advice. Another long-time suitor persists in proposing to her at every meeting; she mulls over the possibility of accepting his suit, but settles for the status quo – frequent drives and teas and dinners – with each returning to one’s own solitary abode each night.

A trip is made to Florence with a friend; nothing in particular happens; it was a pleasant change and gives much scope¬† for happy reminiscence in the subsequent months. A week’s substitute teaching in her old school brings home to Miss Read how pleasant retirement is; she is rather disturbed to find how tired she is after coping with children all day long; she knows she has made the right decision.

A window of new interest opens up in her life with the commissioning of an update to the local church’s historical write-up; this leads to the keeping of a journal, and, yes, the first chapter in a book about a village school…

This was Dora Saint’s last novel; she was 83 when it was published; time to lay down her own pen and move gently into what one hopes was a happily peaceful retirement, for real.

This book did what it was supposed to do: it satisfied the reading urge, it was amusing, it was restful. Judged for those reasons, and not in comparison with richer fare and stronger stuff, I must give it its due. 8.5/10. (Yes, Miss Read is indeed occasionally priggish; she lost her point-and-a-half for certain unnecessarily  judgemental attitudes here and there.)

 

 

 

 

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The Moorchild by Eloise Jarvis McGraw ~ 1996. This edition: Scholastic, 1998. Paperback. ISBN: 0-590-03558-4. 241 pages.

What with my recent reading of Greensleeves, Eloise Jarvis McGraw is on my radar, so when I was bookshelf browsing for my next diversion and noticed The Moorchild tucked away with a bunch of other juveniles too good to dispose of though we have no actual children in residence anymore, I thought, “Aha! It’s meant to be.”

The Moorchild is a book aimed at a rather younger crowd than Greensleeves, in both topic and writing style, though McGraw does her intended audience the grace to assume they are capable of absorbing some non-standard vocabulary terms; the book is stuffed full of what can only be termed dialect.

The novel is Medievalish Britainish in setting, but it’s not meant to be historical fiction or anything approaching it; it’s purely fantastical in theme, drawing heavily from Celtic and Old English folklore. It’s a fairy tale, in fact, in the truest sense of the term.

Young Moql, growing up among the Moorfolk – a race of what would be understood to be old-style fairies, tricksy and malicious versus twinkly and benign – is discovered to be deficient in several important skills; namely in making herself invisible and in shape-shifting.

As the possibility of being seen will endanger the Band as a whole when they venture out into the light of day and forage among the humans, this creates something of a problem, though mostly for Moql, as the Moorfolk are not endowed with anything approaching empathy as the humans know it. (Well, neither are the humans in our tale, as we will find out shortly, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Turns out that one of the Moorfolk ladies has had a dalliance with a human, and the resulting child – as babies will no matter what the species – shares qualities of both her ancestries. She’s neither this nor that, poor little hybrid, through no fault of her own.

So, what to do with Moql?

Get rid of her, of course, by swapping her with a human baby. Due to time being different inside the Moorfolk’s magical mound, and various powers involved in such exchanges, near-adolescent Moql finds herself trapped in a human infant’s body, surrounded by excruciatingly painful anti-fairy items – salt, rowan wood, various herbs, and in particular iron. Which is really a problem, as her “father” turns out to be the village blacksmith…

Moql, now Saaski (as that was the name of the infant she has replaced) proceeds to make her new parents’ lives sheer hell, until she overhears her “grandmother” putting forth the theory that the baby is indeed a changeling, and that there are some fairly drastic solutions as to getting rid of her.

Saaski mulls this over, there in her confining cradle, and decides that survival is worth adaptation, which forms her basic strategy through the next ten years of her life.

For the humans all around her, with the notable exception of her “parents”, and, eventually, her grandmother (the village herb woman/healer), are not particularly kind to a child with such differences as Saaski soon demonstrates. She’s unusually strong, very fast and agile, her fingers and toes are too long, her skin is dusky and her hair pale blonde, her strangely-set eyes are not blue like those of her parents but a changeable violet in colour. Yup, something’s not right with that one.

You know where this is going, right?

When misfortune strikes the village, Saaski becomes the scapegoat as the superstitious and malicious villagers seek for an easy target for their ire. Luckily she has at least one true friend, and one thing that the Moorfolk want, which turns into a bargaining chip as Saaski, who has slowly become possessed of a conscience and a set of the better human emotions, decides to use it to repay her human foster parents for their own misfortune in losing their true baby and being saddled with Saaski instead.

Being a children’s book, the ending is on a positive note, though with enough mystery to leave the reader wondering what will be happening next with Saaski as she sets out on her greater adventure, cut loose from her ties with both her foster family and her true parents.

This is a well written example of its genre, and it deserves its 1997 Newbery Honor Medal.

I do have a few niggling criticisms, though. I thought that the book bogged down somewhat midstream; it felt like it was coming to its highpoint about half way through, but it took forever for the foregone conclusion to be worked out. For of course Saaski is going to go back into the Moorfolk’s Mound, to retrieve a certain something in exchange for her valuable possession.

What that something is will not be a surprise to anyone even slightly versed in fairy lore and changeling tales, but for quite some time it’s like that problem doesn’t exist, and when it is at last acknowledged we get to breathe a big sigh of relief.

The Moorchild might make a decent Read-Aloud; heads-up to those considering it that the centre section goes on and on and might cause excessive exhaustion in the reader-aloud, though there is enough action that you probably won’t lose your audience.

Bad stuff happens, which is rather the whole point, but good stuff eventually prevails, as long as we don’t think too hard about those intolerant villagers, who get to go on as usual, their gang mentality intact and their target of united malice removed. Can’t help but wonder who they’ll turn on next…

Here’s my rating: 6.5/10.

Probably not a must-read book, though meaty enough for some appeal beyond the junior set. A bit too predictable in its plotting and outcome in my opinion, though that’s not necessarily a demerit in the fairy tale world.

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