Posts Tagged ‘Relationships’

north face mary renault 001North Face by Mary Renault ~ 1948. This edition: Longmans, 1949. Hardcover. 318 pages.

My rating: 6/10

This is a little-discussed novel by the author who went on to become world renowned for her historical fiction centered on ancient Greece: The Bull From the Sea, The King Must Die, Fire From Heaven, et al. Before Mary Renault hit her stride with the ancients, she wrote a number of contemporary novels, all concerning the romantic relationships and struggles for self determination of the characters. Most featured hospital settings or nurses and doctors as characters, as the author drew on her own hospital and nursing experience for inspiration and to provide accurate detail.

North Face was Mary Renault’s fifth published novel, released in 1948 in North America (and a year later in England), just as Mary Renault was settling into a new life in South Africa, where she had moved with her partner Julie Mullard after winning a $150,000 prize from the American motion picture company MGM for her fourth novel, Return to Night. Renault was to write one more contemporary novel, the highly regarded The Charioteer (1953) before turning to ancient Greece for the inspiration of her future writing years.

The story opens in a boarding house in rural Devon, where two opinionated single women who are staying for their holidays are making each other’s acquaintance and finding each other rather unsympathetic. Miss Searle is an intellectual college don who travels with her weighty works of Chaucer, which she has been immersed in studying for the past decade. Miss Fisher is a nurse, with a hearty, rather “common” manner; she has a jolly appreciation of the realities of life, and finds Miss Searle’s fastidious air to be more than somewhat annoying.

World War II has just ended, and everyone we meet is still showing signs of the many years of emotional trauma they have experienced. Some have been wound up so tightly they are finding it difficult to return to some sort of new normal; society itself has taken a giant step sideways, leaving those slow to adapt floundering. Add to this the effects of personal tragedies, which are exacerbated by the effects of the war, and suddenly the tense atmosphere of every sort of social gathering is perfectly understandable.

The Misses Searle and Fisher unite in speculation regarding their fellow guests. They are most interested in the solitary Neil, who is abstracted and unapproachable, and spends his days trekking about the countryside with knapsack and detailed maps. A man with a secret, surely? Which is found to be true. Neil is a more than competent boys’ school teacher who has had a fairly uneventful war. Deemed an essential worker, most of it has been spent in his usual occupation, despite his attempts at joining active service. Finally he was accepted into a Service position, still in England, but far from home.

While Neil was otherwise occupied, his young wife discovered and was discovered by the young officers at the nearby American army camp; what started as innocent flirtation turned into a series of sexual liaisons. Neil had returned from his military posting to find that his wife was no longer interested in him in a sexual or emotional way. The dissolution of their marriage led to personal tragedy, as the couple’s young daughter, adored by Neil, is horribly injured in a fire while Neil is out and her mother is entertaining a soldier in her bedroom. The child dies, and on his return from her funeral, Neil is confronted by his wife’s demand for a divorce. She is pregnant by her latest lover, and wishes to start a new life with him post-haste.

Neil is therefore wandering about in Devon in a sort of trauma-induced trance, agonizing over what next to do, and if life is even worth living. In this state he bumps up against another troubled soul, the slender, virginal (literally) Ellen, who has just arrived at the guesthouse.

Ellen has also had an emotionally fraught time of things after the death of her fiancé, a fighter pilot, in the closing months of the war. He was a childhood first love; the two were brought up together as their mothers were step-sisters, and though Ellen was deeply attached to him, she was unable to bring herself to share his deeper passion. She feels that her rejection of his physical advances had hurt him so much that he had been careless while on his last mission; she holds herself responsible for his death, and has punished herself and sought to get over her frigidity by arranging a liaison with another man at the guest house. This falls through, as Ellen is unable to carry through with the physical aspect of the “fling”, and she too is wandering the countryside in something of a daze.

Neil and Ellen discover some shared interests, most notably rock climbing, and the theme of frail human pitted against cold stone and working out emotional issues through physical exertion runs through the novel. As Neil’s and Ellen’s romantic interests in each other grows, Miss Searle and Miss Fisher provide a sort of argumentative and gossiping Greek chorus to the progress of the affair, each putting her own interpretation on what is going on.

Much self-analysis and heart-rending ensues, before Neil and Ellen find comfort in each other’s arms.

A slightly unusual novel, and definitely of strong interest to the Mary Renault completest. I had no trouble at all reading this one through, though it was rather deeply seeped in gloomy psychological trauma and all sorts of Freudian situations, including a gypsy’s warning to Neil and Ellen to “stay away from high places”, which immediately led me to expect some sort of tragic ending, what with all the clambering about on cliffs. (Which didn’t materialize, much to my relief.)

Each of the two main protagonists finds at least some of the solution to their inner turmoil through the concentrated effort of working across a sheer rock face, though I was rather annoyed at the author for allowing Neil to get himself out of a desperate climbing situation while leaving Ellen stranded and requiring Neil’s aid, a metaphor which I felt was likely to represent their future life together.

Oh, and because it is Mary Renault, I am sure you are wondering about the gay/lesbian themes. Not much going on here, unless our intellectual and buttoned-up Miss Searle is a latent lesbian, but as she is quite obviously attracted to the masculinity of Neil, that one doesn’t really fly. Neil has had a close friend and climbing companion, Sammy, killed in the war, but how close a friend is never detailed and the relationship seems to be platonic from the hints dropped by Neil. Ellen thinks that she may be lesbian due to her frigidity towards her fiancé’s advances, but she allows herself to be wooed by a female friend and it doesn’t “take” so she crosses that possibility off the list. I think that’s about it, or at least all I can think of without re-reading with this sort of analysis in mind. 😉

Not in the same league as the best of this writer’s works, but most interesting in view of her future accomplishments. Next on my Mary Renault want-to-read list is The Charioteer, which is deemed to be the best of her contemporary fictions, along with the satirical The Friendly Young Ladies.


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Three “relationship” novels read this month with varying degrees of enjoyment. All three are much discussed elsewhere, so I feel justified in giving them each what amounts to a very arbitrary micro-review. Of these three I doubt I will be returning to The Mistress of Nothing or Letter from Peking. Miss Pettigrew, however, will immediately be moving onto the keeper shelf.

the mistress of nothing kate pullingerThe Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger ~ 2009.

This edition: McArthur & Co., 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-55278-868-4. 248 pages.

My rating:  6ish/10.  (Mostly for the first half of the book, which was quite engrossing, and the fact that it sent me away curious to learn more about the real Lady Duff Gordon. The last half deteriorated to a 3 or maybe, generously, a 4.)

This book won the 2009 Canadian Governor General’s Award for Fiction, to which I can only say that it must have been a quiet year in publishing.

Somewhere as I did a bit of internet research on the author and the novel, I read that Kate Pullinger worked on this for ten years. I’m assuming that it was very much a peripheral project, though I also saw that she received an Author’s Society grant to travel to Egypt for her research, and a series of Fellowships from the Royal Literary Fund. I personally think that the author should also have spent some time working on how to write a convincing bedroom scene, because the sexy bits in this one were blush inducing for all the wrong reasons, reading as though they’d been grafted into a reasonably serious historical novel from something much more slight and bodice-ripperish.

Based closely on Lady Duff Gordon: Letters From Egypt, edited by Lady Duff Gordon’s mother, Sarah Austin, and daughter, Janet Ross, and published in several volumes between 1865 and 1875, The Mistress of Nothing is, first and foremost, well researched. It is also beautifully written for the most part, making the latter plot and stylistic inconsistencies all the more glaring.

Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon was well known for her beauty and sparkling wit and moved in the highest social circles in England, though she and her husband were, relatively speaking, not all that wealthy. Lady Duff Gordon was a noted scholar, and specialized in translations of German literature. She was also doomed to an early death, for she had at some point contracted tuberculosis, and, soon after the birth of her third child, was told she must leave England for a warmer, dryer climate. Travels to South Africa and then to Egypt brought some respite, and The Mistress of Nothing follows the Egyptian sojourn which ended in Lady Duff Gordon’s death in Cairo in 1869. She was 48.

The Mistress of Nothing provides an intriguing if superficial portrait of Lady Duff Gordon, but the focus of the novel is on another genuine character, her personal maid, Sally Naldrett. Sally accompanied her mistress on her travels, and on the trip to Egypt was Lady Duff Gordon’s sole companion, as limited finances precluded anything resembling an entourage.

When the two women reached Egypt, they were fortunate in acquiring an Egyptian dragoman/factotum, one Omar, who by all reports was a devoted and efficient assistant and of great aid in every way possible. At some point Sally and Omar developed an even closer relationship; Sally became pregnant and gave birth to Omar’s child, a development unrealized by Lady Duff Gordon until the actual birth. Her Ladyship reacted in an extreme manner, refusing to have anything  to do with Sally and stating that the child was to be given to Omar’s family (he was already married to an Egyptian woman) and that Sally was to return to England. Sally ended up marrying Omar – under Muslim law he was permitted multiple wives – but there was no reconciliation between her and her mistress, and Sally disappears from Lady Duff Gordon’s narrative, though she was very much still present at least on the fringes of the household for quite some time before Lady Duff Gordon’s eventual demise. Omar stayed on, and retained his position in the household as well as Lady Duff Gordon’s good graces, being recommended by her to serve in the Prince of Wales’ household after her death.

All of this is true to the historical record, and quite fascinating it is, too. It’s very easy to see why Kate Pullinger decided to elaborate on the real life framework of this dramatic trio of personalities; the story as it stands is enthralling.

Where the fictional treatment starts to unravel is where the real life letters leave off and Pullinger’s pure invention takes over. Once the (fictionalized) virginal Sally discovers the joy of sex with Omar, the narrative changes from an interesting examination of expatriate life in 1860s Egypt to a mushy pastiche of Sally’s (imagined) thoughts and emotions and Pullinger’s inventive fabrication of what Sally gets up to once cut adrift from her once-benevolent employer. Though willing to go along with the tale, I was unwillingly lost along the way, and closed the book with a feeling of deep disappointment. It was so close to being such an excellent read…

Well, I see the above got longer than the promised micro-review, though I really didn’t say too much; it’s a largish topic and there are all sorts of things I could say about the fascinating character of Lady Duff Gordon, and the roles of women in the 19th century, and class distinctions, and the vast gap between mistress and servant despite their years of physical intimacy, and the political situation in Egypt and the whole aristocratic British person living abroad thing. But others will have said it already, so I will (and not a moment too soon – the morning typing time is running out) move on to the next book on my list.

letter from peking pearl s buckLetter From Peking by Pearl S. Buck ~ 1957.

This edition: Cardinal, 1964. Paperback. 218 pages.

My rating: 3/10

Pearl S. Buck was a prolific writer, with a number of excellent novels to her credit – The Good Earth, The Living Reed, Peony – and a whole slew of other stuff. Some of which, sadly, is not very good at all. Like this one, which sounded promising, started out not too badly, and slid downhill fast.

This might have made a decent short story, but Pearl S. Buck, by dint of much repetition and needlessly florid meanderings, padded it out into a novel.

Here’s the gist of it.

An American woman, happily married for twenty years to a half-Chinese, half-American man, leaves China with her twelve-year-old son at the start of the Communist government takeover. Her husband, due to an extreme sense of duty, remains behind in his job. (He’s the head of a Chinese university; you know already from this that it’s not going to end terribly well, what with the whole Cultural Revolution thing on the horizon.)

Back in America, the woman settles into her family home in rural Vermont, which has been conveniently waiting for her in perfect order all these years, complete with faithful (if gruff) hired man. A letter arrives. Her husband has been pressured to take on a Chinese wife, to prove his loyalty to his country. The woman puts off answering it. The son runs into issues with his mixed race ethnicity. Much emotion ensues. The woman talks. A lot. Both to herself and to anyone else who will provide a shoulder to cry on. The son decides “enough of this already, Mom’s micromanaging my life. No more confidences.” More tears.

Then the woman, all on a sudden whim, decides to track down her father-in-law, and finds him in the most unlikely circumstance, living in a small shack under the protection of a local big-wheel landowner, having lost his memory but still being cognizant enough of things to insist on dressing himself in Chinese silk gowns, of which he apparently has a whole closet full. (The father-in-law lived in China many years, and left after the death of his Chinese wife – the heroine’s husband’s mother – which was highly unpleasant. She was a revolutionary activist, and was  put up against a wall and shot. Instant martyr stuff.)

Not one but two prospective suitors materialize. “Divorce your husband and marry again!” Oh, what to do, what to do???! By the time it all sort of resolved itself (sort of) I no longer cared.

Heroine is a deeply unpleasant woman, for all of her heartfelt moanings in this first-person monologue. She is a complete and utter snob, self congratulating herself on her amazing superiority in embracing the Chinese culture of her beautiful husband – long passages on how physically gorgeous mixed-race people are – while those around her are so gosh-darned bigoted. She insists that the good old days in China were absolutely wonderful; the peasants were happy; her servants loved her; her beautiful life was so fulfilling. Why did those nasty Commies have to ruin everything? In the meantime she bosses her son around, patronizes the Vermont people who fulfill all of the roles her Chinese peasants used to, and puts off dealing with her husband’s crucial issue. Eventually she gives permission for him to take on a wife-in-absence, giving her yet another lowly person to mercilessly critique.

By the end I hoped that neither of the suitors ended up with her; they seemed nice fellows. And I wished her new daughter-in-law best of luck, and rejoiced for her sake that the son had decided to move far, far away.

Over the years I’ve read a lot of Pearl S. Buck, and enjoyed most of it. This one, as you may have gathered, not very much.

miss pettigrew lives for a day winifred watson 001Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson~ 1938.

This edition: Persephone Press, 2000. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-906462-02-4. 234 pages.

My rating: 8/10

What a relief to turn to this playfully frivolous novel after Pearl Buck’s dismal thing.

Middle-aged Miss Pettigrew, supremely inefficient governess, is on her uppers. Down to her last shilling, she knocks on the door of one Miss LaFosse, following up a lead from an employment agency.

Miss Pettigrew is welcomed in and definitely proves herself useful, but in a most unanticipated way. Dashing young men, cocktails, nightclubs…ooh, la la! Miss Pettigrew has never experienced such a whirl as she does in this utterly life-changing day.

That’s all I’m going to say. A whole lot of fun, this light and airy novel. If you haven’t already experienced this silly, happy thing, seek it out immediately, and enjoy!

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understood betsy dorothy canfield 001

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield ~ 1916. This edition: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. Illustrated by Catherine Barnes. Hardcover. 213 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This is a charming juvenile novel written by Dorothy Canfield Fisher after she had become deeply interested in Maria Montessori’s innovative theories of child rearing and education while on a visit to Italy. The Montessori Method stressed self determination and self regulation in all aspects of a child’s life, and operated under the assumption that if given access to a suitable space with appropriate materials, tools, toys and books, a child would develop a high degree of self motivation and a natural sense of order.

Since Dorothy Canfield was already very involved in women’s rights and educational reform, the Montessori philosophy meshed well with her other interests, and Understood Betsy, which can be read simply as an amusing story, can also be interpreted as an enthusiastic promotion of allowing a child to self-educate and self-regulate, while under a benevolent hands-off adult mentorship.

Little Elizabeth Ann is orphaned at the tender age of six months, and is eagerly adopted by an aunt and great-aunt, Frances and Harriet. Younger Aunt Frances in particular becomes completely wrapped up in mothering the child, lavishing all of her vast reserves of unused adoration on Elizabeth Ann’s tiny person.

 As soon as the baby came there to live, Aunt Frances stopped reading novels and magazines, and re-read one book after another which told her how to bring up children. And she joined a Mothers’ Club which met once a week. And she took a correspondence course in mothercraft from a school in Chicago which teaches that business by mail. So you can see that by the time Elizabeth Ann was nine years old Aunt Frances must have known all that anybody can know about how to bring up children. And Elizabeth Ann got the benefit of it all.

She and her Aunt Frances were simply inseparable. Aunt Frances shared in all Elizabeth Ann’s doings and even in all her thoughts. She was especially anxious to share all the little girl’s thoughts, because she felt that the trouble with most children is that they are not understood, and she was determined that she would thoroughly understand Elizabeth Ann down to the bottom of her little mind. Aunt Frances (down in the bottom of her own mind) thought that her mother had never really understood her, and she meant to do better by Elizabeth Ann. She also loved the little girl with all her heart, and longed, above everything in the world, to protect her from all harm and to keep her happy and strong. and well.

Aunt Frances is well meaning, but her technique is more than questionable.

Aunt Frances was afraid of a great many things herself, and she knew how to sympathize with timidity. She was always quick to reassure the little girl with all her might and main whenever there was anything to fear. When they were out walking (Aunt Frances took her out for a walk up one block and down another every single day, no matter how tired the music lessons had made her), the aunt’s eyes were always on the alert to avoid anything which might frighten Elizabeth Ann. If a big dog trotted by, Aunt Frances always said, hastily: “There, there, dear! That’s a nice doggie, I’m sure. I don’t believe he ever bites little girls. … mercy! Elizabeth Ann, don’t go near him! … Here, darling, just get on the other side of Aunt Frances if he scares you so” (by that time Elizabeth Ann was always pretty well scared), “and perhaps we’d better just turn this corner and walk in the other direction.” If by any chance the dog went in that direction too, Aunt Frances became a prodigy of valiant protection, putting the shivering little girl behind her, threatening the animal with her umbrella, and saying in a trembling voice, “Go away, sir! Go away!”

Or if it thundered and lightened, Aunt Frances always dropped everything she might be doing and held Elizabeth Ann tightly in her arms until it was all over. And at night—Elizabeth Ann did not sleep very well—when the little girl woke up screaming with a bad dream, it was always dear Aunt Frances who came to her bedside, a warm wrapper over her nightgown so that she need not hurry back to her own room, a candle lighting up her tired, kind face. She always took the little girl into her thin arms and held her close against her thin breast. “Tell Aunt Frances all about your naughty dream, darling,” she would murmur, “so’s to get it off your mind!”

She had read in her books that you can tell a great deal about children’s inner lives by analyzing their dreams…

Well, as you  can see from this lengthy excerpt, Aunt Frances is well on her way to creating something of a monster, if timid, terrified, hapless Elizabeth Ann could be labelled with such a horrific term. But things are about to change.

Aunt Harriet takes ill; Aunt Frances must accompany her to a warm climate; there will be no time to spare for or a place to keep Elizabeth Ann. So off in haste she is sent to another branch of the family, efficiently turned away – so much fuss, having to suddenly take on an extra child! – and helter-skelter put on a train to remote Vermont, to be cared for by the country family connections at Putney Farm.

Now Elizabeth Ann is well aware that Aunts Harriet and Frances have always held the Putney relations in deep scorn – such common folk, with no understanding for children – and to think that they had originally wanted to adopt her!

But they (Aunt Harriet and Aunt Frances) thought that they chiefly desired to save dear Edward’s child from the other kin, especially from the Putney cousins, who had written down from their Vermont farm that they would be glad to take the little girl into their family. But “anything but the Putneys!” said Aunt Harriet, a great many times. They were related only by marriage to her, and she had her own opinion of them as a stiffnecked, cold-hearted, undemonstrative, and hard set of New Englanders. “I boarded near them one summer when you were a baby, Frances, and I shall never forget the way they were treating some children visiting there! … Oh, no, I don’t mean they abused them or beat them … but such lack of sympathy, such perfect indifference to the sacred sensitiveness of child-life, such a starving of the child-heart … No, I shall never forget it! They had chores to do … as though they had been hired men!”

Aunt Harriet never meant to say any of this when Elizabeth Ann could hear, but the little girl’s ears were as sharp as little girls’ ears always are, and long before she was nine she knew all about the opinion Aunt Harriet had of the Putneys. She did not know, to be sure, what “chores” were, but she took it confidently from Aunt Harriet’s voice that they were something very, very dreadful.

Elizabeth Ann is about to find out what chores are all about.

Needless to say her transformation from wimpy Elizabeth Ann to sturdy, competent Betsy begins at once. She’s not even at the farmhouse yet before Uncle Henry takes her in hand, by giving her the reins of the team and letting her worry out the techniques of guiding the steady farm horses along the quiet road. I need not go into details, only to say that immediately upon arrival at the farm the child learns to dress herself, comb her own hair, cook, milk a cow, and become wonderfully useful to have about, rather than a “charge”. And there are kittens and maple sugaring time and tug-of-wars at her tiny one-room school, best friends and a trip to the fair all of the usual rural delights to go along with the endless round of chores which make up farm life. And then Aunt Frances shows up to collect her former charge…

A sweetly old-fashioned sort of tale, with the lessons very evident but very easy to swallow. Dorothy Canfield treats her readers as if they too are sensible souls, and complicit in the process of salvaging Betsy from her disastrous first nine years of life, while never outright condemning the well-meaning Frances.

There is a lot of quiet humour in this short tale, and it is not at all a chore for an adult to read. In fact, it is a very nice read-aloud, suitable for the younger set, I would think ages up to 9 or 10 or so. (Older children might find it a mite too mild, and the tone just a bit too old-fashioned.) Betsy is a likeable heroine and as we follow her story we rejoice in her happy transformation.

Readers of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s much more complex and serious adult novels may enjoy this quick side trip into childhood; a visit as crisply refreshing as its nostalgic Vermont country setting.

And here it is at Gutenberg, though it is very easy to find in book form, too, being almost continuously in print for the hundred or so years since its first publication.

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield

The Putney clan - Uncle Henry, Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann - with Betsy, illustration by Ada C. Williamson, from the Gutenberg transcription.

The Putney clan – Uncle Henry, Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann – with Betsy, illustration by Ada C. Williamson, from the Gutenberg transcription.

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Three quick reads this past few days ran the gamut from slightly-gosh-awful to thoughtfully-affirmative to poignantly-hilarious. All are deeply imbued with sense of place. Light reading, all three, easy to pick up and put down, though I must confess I read each one straight through. Without further ado, here they are.

one happy moment dj louise riley 001One Happy Moment by Louise Riley ~ 1951.

This edition: Copp Clark, 1951. Hardcover. 212 pages.

My rating: 4.5/10

I’m glad to have read this obscure Canadian novel, for it made me stop and muse on what makes a style of writing either a hit or a miss with a reader. This one felt awkward to me, stylistically and plot-wise, and even its glowing portrayal of a landscape I have personally known well didn’t quite make up for the clunky prose and the rather cardboard characters. I opened it up prepared to enjoy it; I closed it no longer wondering why this was the author’s only adult novel, and why it (apparently) never made it past that first printing.

She lifted her arms and pulled off her grey felt hat, shaking her head like a young horse, freed from his bridle. She ran to the lakeshore and tossed the hat into the lake, laughing at it as it bobbed primly over the ripples. She tore off the jacket of the grey suit and hesitated about throwing it after the hat. Instead she ran back to her suitcase, snapped it open, and took out a pair of plaid pants and a yellow sweater. Taking a last quick look about her, she pulled down the zipper on her skirt and stepped out of it, kicking it aside. Quickly she unbuttoned her grey blouse and took it off, tossing it on top of the skirt. She pulled her slip over her head and, as she stooped to take off her shoes and stockings, the warm sun felt like a caress on her back. She pulled on yellow knitted socks and heavy shoes. When she was dressed in slacks and yellow sweater, with a scarlet handkerchief knotted around her throat, she pulled the pins out of her fair hair, shook it free, and tied it back with a yellow ribbon.

And in case you didn’t quite catch the symbolism, there’s more.

Into the suitcase Deborah shoved the clothes she had taken off, added a few rocks, hauled the suitcase to the shore, and tossed it into the lake. She watched it sink. Her hat had floated several yards away from the shore, and she waved good-bye to it. Then, slinging her rucksack onto her back, she looked for the path up the mountain side.

The young woman so anxious to dispose of her city clothes – and, by inference, her dull, grey, prim and proper former life – is one Deborah Blair, and she’s about to hike nine miles up a trail to a tourist camp somewhere between Lake Louise and Lake O’Hara, on the Alberta side of the Rocky Mountains.

Her first encounter with another person is an old man just up the trail; he pops out of the bush, startling her greatly, and then proceeds to tell her that he knows she is running away from something, and that she is like a young doe, “…frightened…by a hunter, maybe, out of danger now, taking time to be proud of her speed and to taste her freedom, but still wary, remembering her fright…”

But the mountains will give her sanctuary, he goes on to say, and Deborah parts from him, mulling over what he has said, rehearsing her new role in preparation for meeting her fellow guest camp residents.

These are a motley crew indeed. Evangeline Roseberry is her hostess, an uninhibited, provocative and sultry woman of a certain age. Young ranch hand Slim appears to be very close indeed to his employer, and when Slim is not in attendance the male guests are often to be found in “Vangie’s” cozy cabin. Middle-aged Dr. Thornton is holidaying without his wife and apparently finding his hostess a suitable substitute; downtrodden Mr. Nelson is at the beck and call of his own formidable wife, though he glances hopefully at Vangie’s lush charms when Mrs. Nelson’s focussed gaze is elsewhere, and teenage Sue Nelson cherishes a passion for handsome, red-haired, flashing-eyed yet taciturn geologist Ben Kerfoot. In the kitchen brusque Mrs. Horton reigns supreme, dispensing pithy criticisms to all and sundry along with the bacon and eggs.

Deborah gravitates toward avuncular Dr. Thornton, as nosy Mrs Nelson attempts to probe into “Mrs. Blair’s” past, which appears to be decidedly mysterious, especially when an RCMP officer appears asking questions about why a suitcase with the initials D.B. was found floating in the lake at the bottom of the trail. The plot thickens, with heaving bosoms and flashing eyes from the female contingent all round, and lusty glances and/or darkly passionate glares from the men.

One after another, the people from whom Deborah seeks to hide track her down to her mountain fastness, but she gains strength from the purity of the air and the pristine beauty of the surrounding peaks – not to mention Mrs. Horton’s hearty cooking – and stands up for herself at long last.

Though this novel started out promisingly enough, but ultimately didn’t take me where I hoped it would, and most of that was the fault of the writing, and the lack of a cohesive plot.

Deborah’s vaporings are overplayed, and her flip-flopping between men left me bemused. She is decidedly attracted to both Dr. Thornton and Ben-the-geologist, who in turn steal embraces from whichever woman is present and willing, and, when a manipulative cad from her past appears she mulls over throwing her lot in with his, before the mountain breezes blow some sense into her head. An über-controlling mother appears and is finally confounded, and Deborah prepares to set her sights on making her fortune in Vancouver, being as far away across the continent as she can get from her previous life as a meek librarian in Montreal.

The author was a Calgary librarian and storyteller, and her work with children resulted in the naming of a library branch after her in her native city; the wealthy Riley family was well-known for their philanthropy and social conscience, and Louise by all reports was a fervent advocate for childhood literacy.

Four of Louise Riley’s books were published between 1950 and 1960, the juveniles The Mystery Horse, Train for Tiger Lily, and A Spell at Scoggin’s Crossing, as well as her only adult book, One Happy Moment. Though Train for Tiger Lily received the  Canadian Library Association Children’s Book of the Year Award in 1954, a quick glance into my standard go-to children’s literature reference, Sheila Egoff’s Republic of Childhood, finds that perceptive literary critic dismissing Louise Riley’s juveniles as “insipid and contrived”, which I can sympathise with after reading One Happy Moment. Interesting though it may be in a vintage aspect, this is not in any way inspired writing.

Worth taking a look at is the commentary at Lily Oak Books , where I first heard of One Happy Moment. Lee-Anne’s review is well-considered and thoughtful, and she includes some gorgeous pictures.

My copy of the book is going on the probation shelf; I’ll share it with my mom and then decide if it gets to stay or go. The attractive dust jacket will likely tip the balance. As it arrived in fragile shape, I went ahead and put it into Brodart, and its vintage appeal might be too tempting for me to part with, though the words inside the book are not of the highest rank.

a big storm knocked it over laurie colwin 001A Big Storm Knocked It Over by Laurie Colwin ~ 1993.

This edition: Harper Collins, 1993. Softcover. ISBN: 0-06-092546-9. 259 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Moving right along to the other side of the continent and New England, for this gentle yet slyly cunning novel about love and friendship and transcending unhappy childhoods. It’s also about the terrifying act of bringing a child into the world, and an ode to the possibility of happiness, and our right to seek such out in an often unhappy world.

Does that sound impossibly twee and gaggingly chick lit? Well, it isn’t. (Okay, maybe just the tiniest bit. But it’s easy to get past. I liked this book.)

One Happy Moment has a stellar cover and ho-hum contents; A Big Storm Knocked It Over has a dreadful cover and a well-written inside. Ironically, for the protagonist of Big Storm is a graphic designer employed in the book trade, the blandness of the exterior presentation would not normally have received a second glance from me but for my previous encounter with this author. The late Laurie Colwin – she died suddenly in 1992, before this book was published – was a much-loved columnist for Gourmet magazine and  a bestselling cookbook author, novelist and short story writer. Big Storm was her fifth and last novel.

My first acquaintance with her was some twenty years ago, through Goodbye Without Leaving, about a white ex-backup singer for a black pop band – the token “White Ronette” on the tour bus – and her life after music. I read it just after my son was born, and it struck very close to home; Colwin perfectly captured that “now what?” atmosphere of the ultimate personal change of new motherhood and walking away from your past you, and I was comforted by the parallels between her fictional world and my own. It was also very funny.

In Big Storm, Jane Louise has just married her live-in boyfriend Teddy, and is surprised to find that marriage does indeed change things, even if all that is different is a piece of paper and a ring. We are introduced to an ever-widening circle of co-workers, friends and family, and watch with only slightly bated breath as Jane and Teddy find their new groove.

The gist of the novel is that sometimes family is rotten bad, but that you can always choose your friends. And that babies are quite amazing. And yes, life is terrifying, but if you can find someone to love, who also loves you, it still isn’t all shiny sparkly perfect, but it helps.

I don’t know what else to say. It was good. Not great, but definitely good. And there was a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing from the countryside to the city, and a lot of emphasis is placed on where you’re from and ancestral homes and the clannishness of small New England towns, so I figure it counts in my vaguely themed geographical surroundings thing I’ve got going in this post.

Laurie Colwin was an interesting person and a more-than-just-good writer. I still feel sad when I think about her too-soon departure from our world.

mama makes up her mind bailey white 001Mama Makes Up Her Mind, and Other Dangers of Southern Living by Bailey White ~ 1993.

This edition: Addison Wesley, 1993. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-201-63295-o. 230 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

The best is last, and what an unexpected book this turned out to be. I had picked it up along with a random selection of others at the Sally Ann one day, thinking it was a light novel suitable for dropping off with my mom for her entertainment, but not really intending to read it myself. (It reminded me of something by Fannie Flagg, from the title and the cover illustration and the blurbs about “absolute delight” and “like sitting on a porch swing.” Look away! my inner voice chirped, because I have to confess that Fannie Flag leaves me utterly cold, though Mom can handle her in well-spaced intervals.)

My husband was between books, picked it up off the stack by the door and chortled his way through it before pressing it on me. I sat down with it over dinner, and looked up two hours later after having read it through in one continuous session. Easy as picking daisies to prance through, this one was. And I must say a laugh or two escaped me as well.

This turned out to be a collection of short – some very short – anecdotes and vignettes, many centered on White’s mother, the “Mama” of the title, and others more concerned with Bailey White herself. They were originally presented on NPR in the United States, with the author reading her own pieces, but they work exceedingly well in print.

Bailey White was born in 1950 and still lives in her rural family home in Thomasville, Georgia. Until her mother’s death at the age of 80 in 1994, the two were close companions. Their joint adventures as  “a widow and a spinster” are the focus of some of these lively vignettes, but Bailey White’s scope is wide and she draws inspiration from a vast range of experiences. Bailey White worked as a Grade One teacher for over twenty years in the Thomasville school she herself attended as child, after returning to Georgia when her eleven-year-old California marriage ended in 1984.

Between the covers of this delectable smorgasbord of a book you will find tales of an antique spyglass, the best movie ever made (Midnight Cowboy, according to Mama), Road Kill (and how to decide if it’s edible), Pictures Not of Cows, an Armageddon of a storm and how prayer proved not all that useful, feral swans, an alligator which bellowed on cue, snakes lethal and benign, Great Big Spiders, the perfect wildflower meadow, how to travel unmolested by men (involving a maternity dress and a fake wedding ring), D.H. Lawrence as a life-saving substitute for The Holy Bible, and tales from the classroom.

And much, much more. Something like fifty little stories are stuffed into this book, and they are, without exception, quite excellent.

Apparently based on real people and incidents, there is likely a bit of embellishment to some of these; they have the well-polished feel of anecdotes often told, but that in no way lessens their deep charm.

Passionate, deeply revealing, kind, maliciously humorous – all of these can and do describe the author’s voice. Loved this.

And to think I almost missed it!

A great quick read for the bedside table, or to tuck into a pocket for a waiting room stint. Or to read at coffee break, or over a solitary lunch. Watch out for those spontaneous moments of glee, though. You might get some odd looks. (Or even get in trouble with your beverage.)

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after the falls catherine gildinerAfter the Falls: Coming of Age in the Sixties by Catherine Gildiner ~ 2009. This edition: Vintage, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-307-39823-9. 344 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Wow. That was unexpected. I was tidying up some books I’d casually piled on a corner of the couch, sorting out already-read from want-to-read, and I leafed through After the Falls to refresh my memory as to how urgently I wanted to read it, or if it could be put on the maybe-someday pile.

It caught me.

Suddenly I was sitting down, and reading away like a mad thing. Clean-up abandoned, outside chores abandoned, and it’s a good thing the roast was already in the oven or cooking my family’s evening meal would have been abandoned, too. It grew dark. I switched on my reading lamp. I read this thing right through to the end. My afternoon was completely lost. Abandoned pell mell, while I lost myself in a book.

My seduction by After the Falls was so unexpected because I knew when I purchased it that it was a sequel to an earlier volume of memoir by Catherine Gildiner, Too Close to the Falls. I had a vague little plan to get the first book and read it, and then continue on with the second if the first one was indeed as great as everyone seemed to think it was. I wasn’t really thinking about it too much; I’m fairly immune to mainstream rave reviews, having been disappointed by banality too many times.

After the Falls is not banal. It is over-the-top, frequently jaw-dropping (“Did she just say that? Did she really do that?” How much of this is fictionalized???!”), and funny and sarcastic and joyful and heart-breaking and occasionally awkward and sometimes vague as major incidents are brushed over with a single sentence or two (this, the occasional vagueness and awkwardness, lost the 1.5 points in my personal ratings system), and rather contrived here and there, but never no mind those last few criticisms. It is a very readable book, and I happily recommend it. And I’ve elevated the need-to-buy status of the first installment to high on the list, and, having learned that a third volume is coming soon, have earmarked it as a buy immediately book.

So now you’re all wondering – those few of you who haven’t already ridden this particular train – what the darned book is about. Well, the internet is seething with reviews (mostly favourable) so I will cheat this morning and steal the flyleaf blurb. (Must address all the chores I neglected yesterday; must cut this short!) It’s a tiny bit inaccurate – do these blurb writers read the whole thing? or do they just ask for the high points? – but it condenses things reasonably well.

When Cathy McClure is thirteen years old, her parents make the bold decision to move to suburban Buffalo in hopes that it will help Cathy focus on her studies and stay out of trouble. But “normal” has never been Cathy’s forte, and leaving Niagara Falls and Catholic school behind does nothing to quell her spirited nature. As the 1960s dramatically unfold, Cathy takes on many personas — cheerleader, vandal, HoJo hostess, civil rights demonstrator — with the same gusto she exhibited as a child working split shifts in her father’s pharmacy. But when tragedy strikes, it is her role as daughter that proves to be most challenging.

Actually that’s a very lame flyleaf blurb. It doesn’t at all catch the spirit of the memoir. Here’s a much better blurb, from Publisher’s Weekly, November 2010:

At age 12, Gildiner and her family moved from their Niagara Falls home to a Buffalo suburb, leaving behind a family business, smalltown contentment, and the rebellious childhood chronicled in her first memoir, Too Close to the Falls. While her uprooted parents struggle to adjust, Gildiner stumbles in making new friends and edging into puberty. Her restlessness and a fundamentally outspoken and argumentative nature regularly catapult her further than simple teenage trouble, and she frequently fails at the standard American girlhood, often with comic results. The conflicts between the narrator’s individuality and conformity propel her into her first relationship at the same time that the seismic shifts in American society, culture, and politics hit home with ever-increasing force. On the page as in life, comedy, tragedy, and elegy live right on top of each other, and as with most remarkable memoirs, the straightforward, honest voice and perspective are steady even in the most painful moments.

And I’ll link the author’s website, so you can look around there.

Cathy McClure Gildiner – After the Falls

And here is what my blog friend Jenny had to say: Reading the End: After the Falls. Everything she says, I agree with. But I think you should read Chapter 4, because it explains an awful lot about how the memoirist relates to men from that point forward.

The writer also has a blog, Gildiner’s Gospel, which made me late for bed last night, as it was as compulsively readable as her words on paper. Check it out!

One last thing. The memoir is set in the United States, and at the time she writes about, Catherine was an American citizen. She moved to Canada some forty years ago, though, and reports that she is firmly entrenched in Ontario. In my mind she unquestionably deserves the “Canadian” tag I’ve given her.

Highly recommended.

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I’m still playing a bit of catch-up with reviews of books I’ve read throughout the year, and didn’t write about right away, but which I want to talk about before I tuck them away. Tonight I’m going to zip off some short reviews of some short easy books, the kind one can read quickly through in a few hours. Lit-light, for those times when you need something undemandingly different from your own possibly bothersome real world.

my sister eileen ruth mckenney 001My Sister Eileen by Ruth McKenney ~ 1938.

This edition: Pocket Books, 1942. Paperback. 142 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This frothy memoir was found among the stacks and stacks of vintage Pocket Books at Kelowna’s Pulp Fiction/Robbie Rare Books. The author was new to me, but a bit of internet research showed that she was a well-known journalist in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, with a sideline in humorous memoir, novel and travel writing. This very book, My Sister Eileen, as much about Ruth as it about her younger sister, is a an absolutely charming autobiographical account of growing up in Indiana and then Ohio, and of the two sisters going off to try their luck in New York City. The memoir caught the attention of the public, and it brought its author popular success, being made first into a Broadway play, then into a movie, and finally, in 1953,  into a very successful – 500 + performances – musical, Wonderful Town, starring Rosalind Russell, with music by Leonard Bernstein. A long way from Ohio, oh yes indeed.

I’m not much for laughing out loud while reading, but Ruth McKenney triggered more than a few giggles, as she and Eileen adventure together through their young girlhood, watching much-too-adult movies from behind the brims of their hats, failing dismally at piano and elocution lessons, being traumatized by summer camp, learning how not to swim with the Red Cross, and having a life-altering encounter with Noel Coward. A French pen pal brings romance into Ruth’s life, or so she supposes. She’s not quite sure because no one can translate his handwriting. First jobs give much scope for both girls broadening their horizons, and while Ruth does well for herself on the staff of a newspaper – printer’s devil at fourteen and onward and upward from there – Eileen struggles with the finer points of waiting tables at a posh tea room. Dreadfully dire beaux, a rather more happy (though short) encounter with Randolph Churchill, in America on a lecture tour, and a shipful of Brazilian future-admirals bring romance in the sisters’ lives.

My only complaint is that this sparkling little book is much too short. But there appear to be others, continuing the story, which I may well be searching out, though they are in much shorter supply than this bestselling first installment.

In later years Ruth McKenney’s life was to take a tragic turn. Her beloved sister was killed in an automobile accident only four days before the stage play inspired by her opened on Broadway, and on Ruth’s 44th birthday her husband committed suicide. She stopped writing, and faded into obscurity. A 2003 interview with Ruth’s daughter, Eileen Bransten, was published in the The New York Times, and gives a brief but lovingly poignant character portrait of this talented and ultimately unlucky woman.

nurse is a neighbour joanna jonesNurse is a Neighbour by Joanna Jones ~ 1958.

This edition: Penguin, 1961. Paperback. 159 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10.

Crossing the pond to England, we hear from a rural district nurse, Joanna Jones, who tells of her work with a wryly sarcastic tone more than a little reminiscent of Monica Dickens at her most scathing. While not up to Dickens’ stellar level for this type of memoir, the writing here is competent enough to make this a smooth and easy read, and the details of Nurse Joanna’s life prompt us to forgive her frequently critical comments of all those around her.

Joanna has taken over her posting from a long-time Nurse Merrick, who is now well into her eighties, but still active and alert and very much keeping an eye on her young replacement. Nurse Merrick is not beyond giving some good advice when she thinks it needed, and Joanna tries to bear this in good grace, though it obviously rankles just a little now and again. Joanna also brings along to her cottage her elderly mother who is suffering from what seems to possibly be Alzheimer’s Disease (though the term is never used, I’m supposing that it was not in common usage in the 1950s), a progressive dementia which complicates Joanna’s life immensely, though she appears to cope with grace, humour, and much patience.

A very short, very anecdotal memoir, and an interesting glimpse into the state of British health care just as the National Health Program was being implemented; the protests of doctors and not a few patients as to the unwarranted interference of The State into the state of their medical care is rather familiar what with the United States’ “Obamacare” making the news these days.

Nurse is a Neighbour is quite readable, but I thought it was just missing that elusive special appeal which would make it a must-read. Joanna Jones wrote a second book of memoirs, Nurse on the District, and her books were the basis of a now-forgotten 1963 comedy film, Nurse on Wheels. Neither calls out to me for urgent investigation.

So if I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend this book as worthy of seeking out, I will repeat that it was a pleasant short read for a cold autumn afternoon’s tea break, in to warm up after digging in the garden and raking leaves.

the enchanted places christopher milne 001The Enchanted Places by Christopher Milne ~ 1974.

This edition: Penguin, 1976. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-003449-8. 183 pages.

My rating: 7/10.

I completely missed Winnie-the-Pooh in my own childhood; I can’t recall even being aware of such a character, though I’m sure A.A. Milne’s classic was readily available even in our rural British Columbia ranching community. Early childhood reading consisted mostly of a vast quantities of fairy tales, and of course the ubiquitous Little Golden Books. Beatrix Potter was just barely represented by a single non-Warne edition which consisted of Potter’s immortal text, but someone else’s dreadfully inadequate illustrations. I loved that one for the story alone – oh, brave, foolish Peter! –  and even today could probably reel off the entire thing from memory. But definitely no Pooh, in any way, shape or form.

I remedied that with my own children, of course, but Pooh never really took hold. Grilling them just now as to early childhood favourites, they mentioned Richard Scarry, the Dr. Seuss books, Beatrix Potter (hurray!) and, my daughter’s absolute favourite for a long, long period of her toddlerhood, The Poky Little Puppy. They do remember Pooh, but not with anything like dedicated fondness. Interesting.

Oh well, moving on, then. I myself do remember the Christopher Robin stories from that time of endless reading aloud, and I definitely appreciated the world of the Hundred Acre Wood, so when this memoir by the real Christopher Robin crossed my path, I read it with genuine curiousity.

In this slender volume (I found out later it is but the first of three, the following ones being The Path Through the Trees and The Hollow on the Hill, taking Christopher Milne into his adult years) the memoirist seeks to provide a sort of

…(C)ompanion to the Pooh books. In the first chapters I have attempted a picture of the Milne family life, the family life that both inspired and was subsequently inspired by the books…

For it is very evident from reading Christopher’s reminiscences that his life was indeed greatly influenced by his becoming a very well-known public figure indeed. His parents sought to shelter him from much of the publicity which his fictional counterpart attracted, but Christopher tells of his uneasy awareness that the fatherly gaze was often a bit too analytical for comfort, and then there was that rather awkward provision of new toys with an eye to story development possibilities…

The early half of the book was very much concerned with descriptions of the physical places which inspired the Pooh stories, and I must say that my interest faltered here and there, not being a true-blue devotee, but as Christopher (the real Christopher) grows up and begins to venture out into the broader world, the narrative becomes much more interesting, in an introspective, self-examining sort of way.

A.A. Milne, from Christopher’s restrained yet gently fond description of his father, seems to have been a man with a certain amount of reserve, a certain at-a-distance quality with his young child. He expressed his interest and attention through his writing rather than with much hands-on attention, and one gets the idea that Christopher in later years was very aware of how this had formed his own rather buttoned-up personality. An alone and one would think an occasionally lonely child, was young Christopher. And vaguely troubling is his mother’s insistence on the long locks and feminine attire; she was sorely disappointed that he had not been born a girl, reports Milne, and he muses about her motivations and their effect on his acceptance by his young peers.

I finished this memoir feeling just a little melancholy for that long-ago child’s sake, though it is comforting to see that he did manage to move on and break away from the heavy-though-benevolent burden of his past. I will be looking for the next two memoirs, to find out, in best story-telling tradition, “what happened next.” And, for my upcoming Century of Books, I intend to revisit Pooh himself, with his real-life owner’s story in mind.

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Three unrelated novels which share the common theme of adolescent girls coping as best they can with circumstances beyond their control. Frost in May and The World My Wilderness are undeniably much stronger and deeper novels than In Spite of All Terror, which, though competently written, fits more appropriately into the “juvenile historical fiction” category, but I’ve grouped them together here.

frost in may antonia whiteFrost in May by Antonia White ~ 1933.

This edition: Virago, 1981. Introduction by Elizabeth Bowen, 1948. Softcover. ISBN: 0-919630-36-7. 221 pages.

My rating: 8/10

I have known Antonia White as the gifted translator of a number of Colette’s novels, but I hadn’t realized she was an author in her own right until Frost in May crossed my path in an always-worth-examining green-covered Virago edition.

The novel is autobiographical fiction, based on the author’s childhood experiences attending convent school, and was the first in an eventual series of four books following the same character from her ninth through twenty-third year. Following Frost in May are The Lost Traveller, The Sugar House, and Beyond the Glass, and together they give an account of Antonia White’s formative years, and the emotional turmoil which shaped her adult life. The “transgression” in Frost in May which resulted in the fictional Nanda being expelled from convent school is a genuine event, and the real Antonia was marked for life by it.

It is 1908, and nine-year-old Fernanda – Nanda – Grey is being sent to The Convent of the Five Wounds in London in order to immerse her fully in her new life as a dedicated Catholic child; her father’s conversion several years earlier and his fervent seeking after ways to prove his devotion to his new faith have overflowed into Nanda’s life. She worships her father and seeks to please him in every detail of her life, and though she is understandably wary of this new experience, she is prepared to embrace her life among the nuns with eager dedication, as much for his sake as for her own.

Her experience at first is beyond strange to her; being in some ways better than she had anticipated, but also frequently much more harsh. The strict hierarchy of boarding school life is exacerbated by the dictatorial conduct of the nuns. A few are gentle and benign, though even in the kindest the stern core of duty prevents too much softness from showing, several are judgemental, demanding, and deeply sarcastic, seeming to set their young charges up for continual failure, all in aid of “breaking their worldly spirit” in order to prepare them to fully bow down to God.

Nanda tries her best to fit into this new culture, and gets along quite well, though she is continually haunted by feelings of deep inadequacy, both because of her lowly status as a mere convert to the faith rather than a “born” Roman Catholic, and because of her lack of social status among the many wealthy and aristocratic students.

As the years go by, Nanda makes several close friends, though the nuns forbid “particular friendships”, and is well on her way to forming her own ideas as to her adopted religion and her personal relationship with it, when a tragic misunderstanding loses her both her place in the convent community and the love and respect of her adored father.

The novel is a cutting exposé of the hypocrisies of several of the main characters, including Nanda’s demanding father, and her vaguely inefficient mother, and the effect of those hypocrisies on the sensitive and deeply feeling Nanda. She faithfully seeks to please her superiors and to adapt to their wishes and demands, while continually mulling over her own place in the world, and the contradictions she observes.

Very well written, and provides a fascinating account of life in a particular type of convent school. Suitable for competent youthful readers, perhaps early teens and older, but definitely would be most appreciated by those old enough to look back on their own formative years and relate Nanda’s experiences to their own.

the world my wilderness dj rose macaulayThe World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay ~ 1950.

This edition: Collins, 1950. Hardcover. 253 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

This fabulous novel deserves more than the rudimentary review I am giving it here; I do believe it is one of the most beautifully written of all I’ve read so far this year. Rose Macaulay lets herself go with lushly vivid descriptions of the world just after the war. The bombed-our ruins of London are depicted in detailed clarity, and almost take precedence over the activities of the human characters, who move through their devastated physical habitat in a state of dazed shock from the brutalities they have seen and survived.

This is a bleakly realistic depiction of the aftermath of World War II and its effect on an expatriate teenager and her divided family, split between France and England. It moved me deeply, though the characters frequently acted in obviously fictional ways. What the author has to say about the effects of war on those who survived it is believably real.

17-year-old Barbary Denison is an English girl who has been raised for many years in France under the custody of her divorced mother and French stepfather. Under the confusion of the German Occupation, Barbary has run wild and has not-so-secretly joined up with an adolescent branch of the resistance – she and her younger half-brother have lived the lives of semi-feral children, and have witnessed and taken part in activities much too old for their tender years. After the war ends, Barbary’s stepfather is mysteriously drowned in the ocean near the family villa; possibly in retaliation for his unenthusiastic but undeniable cooperation with the Germans. Barbary’s mother, a hedonistic artist much more in love with her second husband than anyone fully realizes, emotionally draws away from her children, though Barbary in particular worships her mother with fervent dedication. When it is suggested that Barbary return to England to live with her father, her mother acquiesces with what seems like relief.

The culture shock which Barbary faces in post-war London society is sudden and severe. Her upper-class father has remarried and has a young son; Barbary views her stepmother with scorn and refuses to take any sort of interest in her younger half-brother. Her aunt and cousins are at first amused at her brusqueness and mildly sympathetic – they too have suffered in the war – but Barbary’s sullen refusal to adapt soon turns sympathy into bare tolerance. Barbary falls in with a group of young men who are living a precarious life amongst the bombed-out houses; they survive by petty thefts and view the London police as bitter enemies to be evaded at every turn. Barbary finds in this ragged outlaw world an echo of her wartime life in France, and she enters into a tenuous relationship with these new companions, hiding her activities from her father under guise of studying at the Slade School of Art. He in turn is unwilling to dig too deeply into his daughter’s private life, feeling that giving her space and time will ultimately win her affection.

Tragedy strikes, and Barbary is found out; the consequences of her double life and the bringing together of her estranged parents lead to unexpected revelations, though the reader has had inklings all along of secrets too terrible to be told.

I’ve described this novel as “bleak”, but don’t let that put you off. It’s definitely a worthwhile read, and Rose Macaulay’s satirical wit is in fine working order here. If you liked Crewe Train, or The Towers of Trebizond (which I’ve just finished – very good indeed!) you will be thrilled with The World My Wilderness.

in spite of all terror hester burton 001In Spite of All Terror by Hester Burton ~ 1968.

This edition: Oxford University Press, 1970. Softcover. ISBN: 19-272011-2. 150 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This next novel is a slight thing compared to the two that preceded it in this post, but it has its merits as well, as a piece of memorable historical fiction. The author has based the story on her own recollections of 1940, when she was a was a 27-year-old Oxford-educated school teacher watching the evacuation of thousands of schoolchildren to the English countryside in preparation for the anticipated bombing of London.

Child of the slums, orphaned fifteen-year-old Liz Hawtin is a scholarship student at a girls’ grammar school; her evacuation in 1939 to the village of Chiddingford is a welcome development, as it spells her escape from the cold and critical aunt who has reluctantly taken on her sister-in-law’s child.

Taken into an aristocratic family, Liz realizes that her own intellectual ability, which is seen as so superior and is so deeply resented by Aunt Ag back in Nile Street, is no more than mediocre compared to the standard set by the intellectual and accomplished Bruton family. Recovering from that humbling hit to her self-esteem, Liz slowly becomes an accepted and valued member of the family, and gains self-confidence and renewed ambition as she is introduced to the greater world beyond her narrow London bounds.

The climactic event of the novel is the evacuation of the Dunkirk soldiers, which Liz experiences from the English side of the Channel. The episodes concerning Dunkirk from the viewpoint of one of the Bruton sons, and descriptions of the Blitz in London are what makes this slightly clichéd book stand out; the scenes are well-described and memorable.

Reading this book, I realize yet again what a wonderful thing well-written juvenile historical fiction can be. For though we all know the basic facts of events such as Dunkirk, it is the creative retellings we read in the impressionable days of our youth which bring so many of these events to life, opening up our minds to future exploration of history both through “adult” fiction and through first person accounts which perhaps are a bit too frank and detailed for a youthful audience.

I also appreciated the author’s refusal to neatly tidy up Liz’s story at the end of the book; we see her poised at the start of the next year in her life, on New Year’s Eve on the brink of 1941, knowing full well that what comes next may be far more challenging than the year she has just come through.

Hester Burton wrote eighteen novels, mostly historical fiction for youth, and she was noted for her meticulous research and her undeniable story-telling abilities. In Spite of All Terror was her sixth book. A vintage author to keep an eye out for if you have history-savvy teens, and for yourself as well. This was a fast read at only 150 pages, but despite its not-too-bothersome flaws (it was a bit too neat and tidy on occasion) it kept me interested all the way through, with abundant period detail adding value to the tale.

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sapphira and the slave girl willa catherSapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather ~ 1940. This edition: Knopf, 1940. Hardcover. 295 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This book passed the ultimate reading test last weekend. I picked it up while browsing the treasure trove of vintage books at the very recently opened (a year or so ago) Pulp Fiction Coffee House & Robbie’s Rare Books right downtown on Pandosy Street in Kelowna, British Columbia. I settled down with Sapphira and an excellent coffee mocha, and then I read and read and read. The place was busy; the conversation levels loud; I was a at tiny, tippy, table-for-one and it wasn’t exactly what one would consider prime reading conditions, but it didn’t matter. The story won out.

When Sapphira Dodderidge Colbert first moved out to Back Creek Valley with her score of slaves, she was not warmly received.  In that out-of-the-way, thinly settled district between Winchester and Romney, not a single family had ever owned more than four or five negroes.  This was due partly to poverty–the people were very poor.  Much of the land was still wild forest, and lumber was so plentiful that it brought no price at all.  The settlers who had come over from Pennsylvania did not believe in slavery, and they owned no negroes.  Mrs. Colbert had gradually reduced her force of slaves, selling them back into Loudoun County, whither they were glad to return.

Sapphira Colbert is now in her late fifties, and she and her husband Henry Colbert have lived in Back Creek Valley for thirty years. Between them they have built up a modestly successful business in a notoriously poor region; Henry is the flour miller. Sapphira herself is of modestly aristocratic stock; her mother was born in England, and Sapphira’s family heirlooms furnishing her house and her own finicky attention to “proper” speech and deportment set her apart from most of her neighbours. For the last five years Sapphira has been wheelchair bound; she suffers from dropsy and suffers even more from the loss of her physical freedom, though she still rules her household and keeps a keen eye on the mill and Henry’s doings there.

And Sapphira has recently not liked what she is seeing. One of her most-favoured slaves is pretty and intelligent Nancy, the half-white daughter of Till and granddaughter of Jezebel; the third generation of a family line owned by the Dodderidge family. Sapphira has made something of a pet of Nancy, keeping her as a personal servant and giving her trinkets and pretty clothes, but recently she has turned on the bemused girl, lashing out at her verbally and physically. Nancy has no idea why her beloved mistress has turned against her, but everyone else on the place has an opinion on the matter.

Nancy has been in the habit of cleaning Henry Colbert’s bedroom over at the mill – Henry and Sapphira lead very separate lives, and no longer share their marriage bed – and has started bringing Henry small nosegays of flowers, which she leaves in his room. The two have recently been seen in earnest conversation, and Sapphira, viewing Nancy’s lushly blossoming adolescent figure with a cynical eye, suspects that her husband and her slave girl are up to something even more intimate in the hours of the night.

She is mistaken, though. The relationship between Nancy and Henry is innocent through and through. Henry views Nancy as a pure young girl, and himself as her paternal protector. It has never crossed his mind to look at her in a sexual way, and she herself is  vehemently virginal, shuddering at the thought of sex with anyone, least of all her fatherly patron.

Henry is a noble character, of a sternly righteous Lutheran heritage; the thought of slave ownership is anathema to him, and only his vast respect for his wife has made it possible for him to keep quiet about what he sees as a fundamentally wrong practice. It is pre-Civil War Virginia, though, and marriage laws are such that Sapphira is unable to sell her property – including her slaves – without her husband’s permission. She has made her intention of selling Nancy clear to Henry, and he has categorically refused to allow such a thing, believing that Sapphira owes her slaves a permanent benevolent protection, adding fuel to the fire of Sapphira’s suspicion. So Nancy continues to receive sharp words and sharp cuffs, while Sapphira muses on other ways to revenge herself on her two supposed betrayers.

How Sapphira plots her revenge, and how Nancy is able at last to escape her wrath is the storyline which runs through the book, though there is a lot more going on here too, and numerous cleverly drawn characters besides the three key players.

Willa Cather tells her story in a spare, clean style, mincing no words whatsoever. As a matter of fact, the frequent colloquial language made me wonder rather why this novel has not suffered the same criticism as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has recently received; Sapphira, her compatriots and the narrator herself have no problem with calling anyone a “yellow girl” (for the half-white Nancy) or a “darkie”; “nigger” is an everyday expression and is used abundantly throughout.

Perhaps it is the overall theme, a critique of the practice of slave ownership, and an ongoing discussion of moral obligations, which has made it less of an issue? Or maybe the book is just that much more obscure that publicity has so far escaped it. In any event, it is there, and slightly shocking to a modern day reader; I did find myself glancing around to see if anyone was reading over my shoulder, and I angled the book to prevent a casual glance from catching the potentially offending words.

An excellent read, which kept me engaged even through the increasing melodrama, and Nancy’s continual jittering vapours. Sapphira as the key antagonist is cold and calculating, and we are very cognizant of her manipulative ways, but we are also given a chance to see behind the façade, to glimpse her fears and insecurities and internal conflicts, as well as those of every other major character.

In Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Willa Cather lives up to her reputation as a brilliant writer and a keen observer of American culture and personal history.

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the bird in the tree elizabeth goudgeThe Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge ~ 1940. This edition: Coronet, 1990. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-02683-9. 256 pages.

My rating: 6/10

This is the first book of what was to become the well-known “Eliots of Damerosehay” trilogy; three novels centered around a (mostly) artistic and intellectual upper-class family before and just after the World War II years. The setting of the ancient ship-building village in Hampshire, the real-life Buckler’s Hard referred to as Fairhaven, or “The Hard”, consisting of Big Village and Little Village, is lovingly drawn from life. The houses so eloquently described in the books as to be characters in their own right – Damerosehay, and, in the second book, the Herb O’Grace,  were fabricated by the author from memories of similar places important to her in her own retreat from the world to recuperate from her own emotional breakdown following the long illness and traumatic death of her beloved father, which prefaced the writing of this novel.

Visitors to Damerosehay, had they but known it, could have told just how much the children liked them by the particular spot at which they were met upon arrival. If the visitor was definitely disliked the children paid no attention to him until Ellen had forcibly thrust them into their best clothes and pushed them through the drawing-room door at about the hour of five; when they extended limp paws in salutation, replied in polite monosyllables to inquiries as to their well-being, and then stood in a depressed row staring at the carpet, beautiful to behold but no more alive than three Della Robbia cherubs modelled out of plaster. If, on the other hand, they tolerated the visitor, they would go so far as to meet him at the front door and ask if he had bought them anything. If they liked him they would go to the gate at the end of the wood and wave encouragingly as he came towards them. But if they loved him, if he were one of the inner circle, they would go right through the village, taking the dogs with them, and along the coast road to the corner by the cornfield, and when they saw the beloved approaching they would yell like all the fiends of hell let loose for the afternoon…

And as the story opens, the approaching visitor is very well beloved indeed. It is David, grandson of the matriarch of the country home Damerosehay, Lucilla Eliot, and the children referred to are his three young cousins, Ben, Tommy and Caroline, who are living with their grandmother in Hampshire while their father is in India and their mother in London.

As well as gifts for the children, David comes on this visit with some disquieting news for his grandmother. He has fallen in love with the children’s mother, his own aunt-by-marriage Nadine, who has just obtained a divorce from Lucilla’s son George. David and Nadine, despite the vaguely incestuous awkwardness of their relationship and the five year difference in their ages (Nadine is thirty; David twenty-five) propose to marry, and David has screwed up his courage to confront Lucilla with the decision as unalterable.

Lucilla cannot agree; she still hopes that Nadine and George will reunite, and she is utterly appalled at the thought of the trauma which the children will undergo, in particular the sensitive and sickly Ben, who worships his older cousin as well as his absent father; his mother’s proposed marriage will shatter Ben’s fragile peace, and Lucilla refuses to countenance such a thing.

Lucilla fits the pattern of benignant family matriarch wonderfully well. She is a woman of strong personal attractiveness, being both physically beautiful and deeply invested in the interests of her extended family. She had, years ago when the child David was orphaned shortly after the Great War, purchased Damerosehay and built it up as a place of refuge to her children and grandchildren to retreat to for emotional and spiritual healing from the stresses of their workaday lives. And, like all matriarchs, she frequently feels as though she knows best in every situation, regardless of what her family wishes for themselves. So Lucilla sets out to make David and Nadine see the errors of their ways, and to knit together the unravelling family bonds.

Damerosehay itself has a fascinating history, and it is through the discovery of the details of the lives of those who have resided there before the Eliots that Lucilla finds support for her passionate defense of the virtues of loyalty and higher responsibility – to family and God, and to community and society – which she presses upon both David and Nadine as of higher importance than personal happiness.

Elizabeth Goudge was a loquacious describer of both people and places, and her sincere nature-worship and delight in the beauties of the rural world come through loud and clear in this novel. The descriptive passages, though frequently gushing, do paint clear and evocative pictures of the Hampshire countryside and village worlds; her descriptions of the people in her stories are equally well drawn.

If the story has one major fault – and it does have many small ones, too – it is that the conclusion is very obviously contrived and owes much too much to convenient discovery of old manuscripts and vaguely supernatural occurrences including a mysterious blue bird and a phantom mother and child. Capping things off is a well-placed storm and rescue-by-rowboat of an old family retainer with a key part to play in the background tale of Damerosehay’s earlier inhabitants, and its mysterious carved drawing-room mantelpiece, which exerts a strangely compelling influence on everyone who enters the room.

This whole concluding episode is sentimentally melodramatic, and not particularly convincing, unless one accepts the extra-special specialness of the Eliots’ collective hypersensitivity to atmosphere, which selectively is a trait shared among the main characters, in particular Lucilla, David and Ben. And in this case, Nadine, who is temporarily allotted the same sensitivity in order to allow her to benefit from Damerosehay’s special atmosphere. (In later books she goes back to being herself, to my great relief, as she is a breath of sensible, sarcastic fresh air among the dreamy Eliots she finds herself saddled with as in-laws. I personally wish frequently to give David a good hard shake when he starts maundering poetically on in his actor’s way.)

The story has its merits, chief of which is its introduction of the very winsome Eliot children and its value as a back story to the even more sentimental but completely endearing Pilgrim’s Inn, the second book of the trilogy, which is one of my secret comfort reads when I need some moral pepping up. I also greatly enjoy Lucilla’s two adult children who are always steadily there in the background. Saintly Hilary, living in bachelor squalor in the local vicarage, and overworked and underappreciated Margaret, with no fashion sense, plain looks, and little talent for doing things as Lucilla would wish them done in the house, but with a secret life in her glorious garden, both give a refreshing breath of reality to the rarefied Damerosehay atmosphere.

If I seem to be damning this story with faint praise, I do wish to add that I am very fond of Elizabeth Goudge’s novels, and read them through on as regular basis, so my criticisms are those of an old, occasionally querulous, but ultimately well-meaning friend. This is not one of my favourites, but it is very readable despite my quibbles, particularly in context with the two companion books which follow.

This novel has been cursed with a wide array of hideous covers, so instead of sharing the actual Coronet illustration on my edition’s cover I am cheating a bit and using a much more lovely vintage cover, which sadly is inaccurate as to its depiction of Damerosehay overlooking the sea. In the book, the house is set in a sheltered place, set among walled gardens, and separated from the sea by an ancient oak wood. But let that pass; it will suffice.


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the friendly young ladies mary renault 001The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault ~ 1944. Published in America as The Middle Mist. This edition: Vintage, 2003. Afterword by Lillian Faderman. Softcover. ISBN: 0-375-71421-9. 280 pages (novel), extended to 293 pages with Afterword.

My rating: 7.5/10

I’ve long considered myself a dedicated Mary Renault fan, ever since reading The Bull From the Sea at an impressionable age and being blindsided by the author’s creative interpretation of Greek myth mixed with plausible historical fiction. I’d never read anything quite like this before, and I liked it a lot. What followed was an active quest for more of the same; I eventually read all of the author’s “Ancient Greece” novels, and the collection I painstakingly acquired by scanning the dusty stacks of numerous second hand book stores, in the days before used book buying was made so gloriously accessible through the internet, is one I value greatly.

Mary Renault’s contemporary works were a much later discovery; for a long time – pre-internet, I remind you – I had no idea that such even existed. When I discovered the first of these, Kind Are Her Answers, I could not at first quite take in that this was the same author. Reading that novel bemused me some; though the storytelling skill was certainly there, the subject matter was far removed from the classical world, unless of course one were to step back and muse that human nature remains the same no matter what the era. Love and lust and jealousy and ambition and rage and sorrow being key elements in all of these stories; the figures in the plays remained similar, though the costumes and sets varied.

Mary Renault excels at characterization. Her contemporary novels in particular concentrate on the life of the mind, and the relationships between characters, much more than on the actions of the physical world. The Friendly Young Ladies takes place in a variety of intriguing locations – a houseboat on the Thames, Cornwall, London – but the action is overwhelmingly in the characters’ heads.

Here’s our story.

From the 1945 American edition, published under the title "The Middle Mist".

From the 1945 American edition, published under the title “The Middle Mist”.

Seventeen-year-old Elsie in Cornwall is deeply unhappy in her family life. Her parents bicker endlessly, and Elsie is the pawn of many of their arguments. An older sister, Leonora, has already broken free; nine years ago she left with a rucksack of belongings, never to return; her name is never mentioned, and Elsie has always assumed that her sister has gone to a dreadful fate, and is “living in sin”, if not something worse.

Elsie falls ill, and is treated by a young, newly qualified doctor filling in for the local G.P. Peter fancies himself something of an amateur psychologist; he decides to give Elsie a new interest in life by flirting with her and “pepping her up”. Elsie predictably develops a passionate crush on Peter; when he leaves to go back to London, Elsie reacts by running away herself, to throw herself on the hospitality of the elusive Leonora, whose address she finds in a locked drawer in her mother’s desk.

Crossing England, Elsie fetches up on the banks of the Thames just out of London, where Leo resides on a houseboat with her close friend, Helen, a nurse and medical artist. Leo has made a tenuous career for herself as a writer, turning out pulp Westerns under the pseudonym “Tex O’Hara”. The two have built a quiet and satisfying life for themselves, into which Elsie drops as an oblivious intruder. Thrilled deeply at the “bohemian” lifestyle she is now part of – just how unconventional her sister’s living arrangement is completely escapes her – Elsie writes to Peter, inviting him to visit, with the hopes that he will be suitably impressed by her initiative in escaping her dreary home life.

Peter shows up, and is thrilled to discover a rich new playground for his Freudian explorations. Two beautiful lesbians, apparently receptive to male advances, plus the awkwardly blossoming virgin Elsie – he can do them all so much good, and if he benefits by a bit of the action himself, all the better!

Now this is the bit that many modern reviewers have concentrated on, spinning the novel as an “erotically charged romantic comedy”, or some such nonsense. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and it does this novel an immense injustice, though there is certainly a lot of sly humour in the characterizations and situations involving Peter. At one point Leo seduces Peter’s girlfriend; Peter sort of gets it, and is understandably miffed when the penny drops, but he comes back more persistently than ever, being stunningly bulletproof in his self-confidence, and absolutely unputdownable. Leo and Helen run rings around him, having figured him out at the first encounter, though naïve Elsie is devastated when she realizes that she was never in the running where Peter is concerned.

All of this is mere superficial action though, and the real core of the novel is the three-way relationship between Leo, Helen, and fellow river-dweller Joe, an accomplished author of “serious” novels, who masquerades as a common labourer between bouts of writing. Their platonic circle is serene and secure, untroubled by complications of romantic jealousy, until hapless Elsie and bumptious Peter stir things up and irretrievably alter the delicate balance among the friends.

There is so much good stuff in this novel, so many worthwhile and thought-provoking passages, regarding the creative strivings of writers and artists, and also involving the convoluted realm of human sexuality. Simply viewing Leo and Helen as “confused lesbians” utterly misses the point the author is making, which is that sexuality can be a fluid and ever-evolving state of being, and, most importantly, that one should not be defined by stereotypical views having to do with one’s sexuality, be it hetero, homo, or some combination thereof. It is, at most, a sideline characteristic, and those who concentrate upon sexual identity at the expense of other character traits do themselves and society at large a disservice.

This novel is competently written, frequently amusing, poignant in places, and articulately and viciously critical of middle-class mores. I appreciate the nuances more each time I read it, though I cannot bring myself into a place of true sympathy for the oblivious and ultimately smug Elsie; she returns to the parental fold basically unchanged by her impulsive adventure, leaving unguessed-at havoc in her wake. She suffers in her own way, and she has her few moments of hellish self-examination, but she moves on; we do not agonize over her future happiness as we do for physically and emotionally fragile Leo, and for lovable and loving Helen, and for compassionate and deeply decent Joe.

I wish I myself could be more articulate as to this book’s appeal; luckily the author’s own Afterword, written in 1983 and looking at her novel down the long vista of years, sums it up well and gives a glimpse of the motivation that spurred on its writing – a kneejerk reaction to the sombre The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, which the author and her partner read with snickering dismissal while on a French holiday in 1938. (The book was banned in England for its homosexual themes.) Renault’s lesbians don’t agonize too much about their “condition” – if it could be called such a thing – they get on with things in general, taking sex in stride as it happens (or doesn’t) and assuming the same of those around them. A refreshing change from the norm, today as much as seventy-some years ago.

Leo’s end-of-the-book encounter with heterosexual sex aside, this is a book about desires of the mind rather than the body, and it is an interesting read on multiple levels.

Thank you to Jenny, for nudging us all to give Mary Renault a try, and a reminder to re-read for those of us who are already fans. And please do follow the conversation over at Reading the End.  You will find more musings on Renault and her varied oeuvre there.

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