Posts Tagged ‘YA Fiction’

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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the ocean at the end of the lane neil gaimanThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman ~ 2013. This edition: Morrow, 2013. 1st Edition. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-06-225565-5. 181 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

I ration my new books quite severely, for several reasons.

One is that new books are so darned easy. I love the second hand book hunt an awful lot, and relish the finding of literary treasure in all its forms, from the well-known bestsellers of yesterday to the quirky little short-run oddities which pop up now and then, and everything in between. I generally have a wish list of authors I’m currently interested in, but the serendipitous finds are what I keep going back for.

Another vital consideration is price. New books are expensive. Case in point, Gaiman’s latest which I’ll be talking about here. This one set my back $27.99 (Canadian) at my local independent bookstore. Yes, I know I could have purchased it for less through one of the big chain bookstores, or online from the big “A”, but I am trying my hardest to limit new book purchases to the local folks, to do my small part in keeping them in business.

But $28.00 (plus tax) for one book, which, considering Gaiman’s popularity and the size of the print runs, will be readily available for pennies on the dollar in a year or two in the Sally Ann book bins, is a chunk of cash which I need to think about fairly hard before parting with. For that investment I could walk out of even the most lavishly over-priced second hand book store with a handful of volumes, or purchase a true rarity online. Something to think about…

Well, was it worth it? Was my money well spent in purchasing a book because I wanted to read it now, not in a year’s time, or whenever my turn would come in the queue at the public library?

The answer is a resounding “I’m not quite sure…” While the story itself was well up to Gaiman’s best work, it was a slight little thing, quickly devoured and leaving one vaguely unsatisfied and wanting more. Not perhaps such a bad thing, come to think of it. We’ll see how it holds up to a reread in a year or two, once all the hype has faded.

I won’t go into too much detail, as the internet is seething with detailed reviews – over 10,000 (!) on Goodreads alone. I didn’t read any of these before I read the book, but I dipped into them briefly just now, and yes, there’s a lot of words being bandied about, some very thoughtful indeed.

But please, dear fellow reader, read the story cold, if you can, which is what I did. I do feel it is a much better experience, not knowing too much going in.

From the front flyleaf:

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

Not quite sure about that last bit, the “groundbreaking work” part, and the “rare understanding of all that makes us human” puff, but I do agree with the delicate and menacing bits. This was a very creepy story, but in a good way, fictionally speaking.

Lying in bed early this morning, mulling over what to say about the story, a few things stood out for me, and I felt all clever and wise, but glancing through the other online reviews show me that everyone else caught them, too, so I don’t feel quite so special any more.

I saw that it The Ocean at the End of the Lane could be viewed as an allegorical tale much along the same lines as the Narnia books, or any of the oodles of fairy tales and legends preceding that most well-known of story-as-hidden-propaganda-for-a-worldview. Or perhaps “propaganda” is not a fair term. Let’s say “explanation”, then, or something similar. In any event, it’s as old as history, this perhaps-not-so-groundbreaking story line.

In this one, the Maiden-Mother-Crone trinity, the requirement for the protagonist – a feeble creature indeed, standing in nicely for all Mankind, if one continues with the allegory – to act with full faith in their protection, the smug “good will always trump evil” atmosphere of the Hempstock farm, and the pseudo-sacrificial bit at the end, complete with water imagery and resurrection on another plane, all feel very familiar, as they indeed should, as we’ve seen their like before. Many times.

But Gaiman’s interpretation is unique and horrible and beautiful and very well imagined. I enjoyed it thoroughly, as a piece of creative contemporary fiction. Maybe the allegory is all in my head, and the story is just a story. Works either way.

So, asking myself again, was it worth the $27.99 in reading value? I have to say, after more consideration, that the answer is probably “No.” But now I have a nice hardcover copy, still crisp and clean even after being read by everyone in the family, which will look very nice on the shelf until the re-reading impulse strikes in a few years. It’s all right. And I’m hoping that my bookstore got a decent cut!

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when jays fly to barbmo margaret baldersonWhen Jays Fly to Bárbmo by Margaret Balderson ~ 1968. This edition: Oxford University Press, 1970. Softcover. ISBN: 19-272010-4. 220 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Bárbmo is the mystical place in Lapland folklore where the migrating birds fly away to; some never go there, like the jays. The riddle of the intriguing title is made clear in the final pages of this engrossing historical fiction novel.

Fourteen-year-old Ingeborg lives on the remote Norwegian island of Draugoy, where her family household, consisting of her widowed father, an aunt, and elderly hired help Per (an obviously troubled man with a mysterious past), eke out a precarious but modestly comfortable living through farming and fishing. But even their small and isolated society is about to feel the effects of events in the greater world. It is 1940, and Hitler’s troops are advancing through Europe and into neutral Norway, with an aim to annex Norway’s ice-free shipping ports and to ensure crucial supplies of iron ore from Sweden which was handled through the Norwegian shipping system.

Norway falls under German control without much resistance; the royal family and the government escape to England to form a government-in-exile for the next five years; thousands of young Norwegian men begin to filter out of their homeland to train with Allied forces in other parts of Europe, and in Scotland and England; and as the years turn over even the farthest settlements are occupied by troops of the Wehrmacht.

This is the greater historical background to Ingeborg’s story, and against it the more detailed personal events of the novel take place. Our young heroine struggles with her place in her family, fiercely resenting her aunt’s attempts at turning her into a “proper” Norwegian housewife; Ingeborg would rather be out roaming the woods with her dog Benne, or out in the barn with the animals, or sitting with Per and badgering him for tales of his travels. Her father treats her with deep love but yet with a patronizing attitude, never letting Ingeborg forget that she will never be a part of his man’s world. He refuses to discuss her mother with her; there is some great mystery there which all of the adults skirt meticulously around, as if protecting Ingeborg from something which will harm her.

Being a properly traditional bildungsroman, Ingeborg tenaciously discovers the secrets of her origin. She faces and overcomes the loss of everything she holds dear, and in the end discovers who she really is and where she really belongs.

This novel is short and aimed at a juvenile audience, so by necessity glosses over large periods of time and merely hints at some events, but the author pauses at perfectly timed intervals to go into the exquisite details of Ingeborg’s inner and outer lives; the novel is beautifully written. The horrors of war are unflinchingly discussed; the evils of the Nazi regime and the atrocities surrounding the scorched earth policy of the retreat from northern Norway are tellingly depicted.

If there is any weakness to this story, it is that the realities spoken of – the historical facts – are so brutal as to be almost unbelievable, making accompanying research a necessity – heads up to those using this novel as part of a social studies/history curriculum.  Some details of the story are also perhaps a bit too lightly touched on, but appropriately so for the intended youthful audience.

But don’t overdo the background research; let the story tell itself, because it is first and foremost just that, a personal story of a quest for self-understanding. The dramatic events which unfold are viewed through a single set of eyes, that of the young narrator.

The seasons of the Scandinavian northland, the months without sun, the joy of returning daylight, the nomadic travels of the reindeer-herding Laplanders and their yearly brief relationship with the farmers and fishermen of the summer ranges are all wonderfully depicted.

This novel received the Children’s Book of the Year Award in 1969 in the author’s native Australia, and was a runner-up for the UK’s 1968 Carnegie Medal. It is also something of a one-of for the author. From the quality of the writing I had hoped to find some similar later works, but nothing comes to light except for a few light fictions for younger children published in the early 1970s.

A snippet of biography found online explains the author’s familiarity with the setting of her story, and her obvious passion for the sharing of the brutal experiences of the rural Norwegians during the German occupation.

Australian children’s book author Margaret Balderson first made a name for herself with When Jays Fly to Bárbmo, a coming-of-age story about Ingeborg, a Norwegian girl who experiences the German invasion of Norway during World War II. The fear of invasion, and then its traumatic reality, provoke the young woman into a soul-searching quest to validate her own personal identity. This debut novel won awards across the English-speaking world.

Balderson was born and raised in Australia, but in 1963 she left for Europe. She settled for two years in Norway, where she worked in the winters and explored the countryside in the brief northern summers. In the Arctic nation, according to Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers contributor H. M. Saxby, “she experienced in a deeply personal way the innate rhythms of that land as expressed through its seasons. In particular, the Dark Time of the long Arctic winter became for her symbolic of an oppression of spirit which evaporates with the miracle of each spring.” Balderson’s experience of that cycle is reflected in Ingeborg’s life, as she passes through the darkness of living under occupation and emerges into freedom and adulthood.

A grand example of a “living book” which will be of interest to homeschool families and history teachers. I would say that it is suitable for ages 10 or so to adult. Highly recommended.

My edition is the OUP softcover, published in 1970, and it is graced by a wonderful cover illustration by one of my very favourite literary artists, Victor Ambrus. The first chapter heading is also illustrated, but sadly the rest of the volume is without decoration. I wonder if the original edition has more pictures? If so, I would love to get my hands on one…

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where the lilies bloom vera bill cleaver 001Where the Lilies Bloom by Vera and Bill Cleaver ~ 1969. This edition: Scholastic, 1974. Paperback. 175 pages.

My rating: Oh, gosh. This is a hard one. The writing is unique and enjoyable to read; the heroine’s voice is individualistic and uniquely portrayed. But the plot is where I held my head in agony. I get that this is a book aimed at the children’s/teens’ market, and therefore perhaps to be expected to be slightly simplified, but the plot was so full of holes that I kept stopping and going “What…???!!!” But the poignant bits were genuinely heartbreaking, and the story as a whole just might have happened. Just maybe…

Okay, I need to commit myself to a rating. How about an 8/10, with reservations. If a bit better developed and with more attention to plausibility, this one could well have been worth a 9 or even a 10 from me.

This is basically one of those bleak Appalachian stories all about abject poverty and fiercely stubborn people living in various degrees of squalor among fabulous natural beauty. And, predictably, we are taken behind the superficial vision of “dirty hillbillies” to see into the glorious nobility of the characters’ souls.

I am sincere in putting forth a rather cynical generalization of this type of fiction, which was abundant in the 1960s and 1970s, at least in the juvenile novels I was finding in my school library. There seemed to be a certain trend to showing all of the dreary details in kid-lit, with an amazingly strong hero, or, more frequently, a heroine, overcoming all sorts of obstacles and ending the book staring off into the gleaming sunrise (metaphorically speaking) of a better future. Hyper-realism combined with a fairytale ending. (“Did we play upon your deepest emotions, young reader? Well, here’s a nice resolution to make it all better.”) However, as the next development in youth fiction of the 1970s, 1980s and beyond was of brutally unrelieved bleak endings, I guess the “happy” fabrications are a mite easier to handle.

So here we have a family of five people living in a tired shack on twenty acres of share-cropped land in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains. Widowed Roy Luther, patriarch of the family, is seriously ailing. About to die, in fact. Before he does, in a heart-rending episode, he makes his four children promise that they will bury him in a hand-dug grave, not inform anyone of his demise, and take care of each other. They are not to accept charity from anyone, and the eldest daughter, eighteen-year-old Devola, described as “cloudy-headed” (quite obviously mentally handicapped to a certain degree), beautiful in appearance and childishly happy in nature, is not to marry the wicked landlord, one Kiser Pease, who is actively pursuing her.

Fourteen-year-old Mary Call Luther is our narrator, and the heroine of this dramatic novel of survival.

Roy Luther has made me promise him some things:

When the time comes, which he hopes will be in his sleep, I am to let him go on as quietly as he can, without any wailing or fussing. I am not to call any doctor or allow anyone else to call one. If it happens at night I am to wait until morning before I tell the others: I am not to send for the preacher or undertaker. The preacher has a mighty voice in these mountains but he expects to be paid for his wisdom. And the undertaker, for all his hushed, liquid speakings of how paltry his tariff will be, can be ill-humoured and short-tempered when the time comes to divvy up as we found out in the case of Cosby Luther, my maternal parent, who died of the fever four years ago.

So it is that Roy Luther has requisitioned me to give him a simple, homemade burial when the time comes. After I am sure his heart and breathing have stopped, I am to wrap him in an old, clean sheet and take him to his final resting place, which will be within a stand of black spruce up on Old Joshua. We have not talked about how I am to get him there. Were you to ask Roy Luther it would shame him to have to say aloud that it will have to be in Romey’s wagon and he’d have to say what for me to do with the feet which will surely drag because the vehicle is but a toy.

Quite a charge for a fourteen-year-old; as Devola is incapable of taking charge, and the other children are even younger than Mary Call. Brother Romey is only ten, and smallest sister Ima Dean six.

From the tragedy of a slowly dying father, the story turns to farce with the discovery of Kiser Pease in a state of sickness alone in his house; the siblings decide to try some home remedies out on him, immersing him in a bathtub full of stewed onions to break his fever. Holding Kiser hostage in his weakened state, Mary Call forces him to sign a paper giving the Luthers the title to their farm, which he does with surprising meekness.

Roy Luther lingers on, and the children turn to wildcrafting to make grocery money.  Wildcrafting, for those unfamiliar with the concept, is the gathering of wild plants, generally for medicinal purposes. The Appalachians are a rich hunting ground for this purpose – ginseng, goldenseal, witch hazel and mayapple are just a few of the wild herbs fetching high prices at the drug store in the nearby settlement.

Roy dies and is buried by Mary and Romey in the most brutally poignant episode in this emotional little story; I swear a tear or two formed in my own eyes as I read this part. But the children soldier on, pretending to everyone that their father is still alive, and preparing as best they can for the fast-approaching cold time.

Disaster after disaster strikes the diminished family; winter is barely survived; but with spring a series of unlikely events brings a positive conclusion of sorts to this saga of endurance.

All in all, a decent enough fiction for the pre-teen to adult readership. Abandon your sense of disbelief at the first page, and just let yourself go; it’s the easiest way to get through this one, believe me.

If presenting this to your children as a novel study or social studies curriculum supplement, there are some truly interesting features in the story. The wildcrafting parts are based on fact, and would, to my mind, be the most valuable episodes to emphasize and research further. As for Appalachian life, I am of the opinion that this is a highly dramatized version. There is no real sense of a specific time period; one could assume the story is set in some time from the 1940s up until the 1950s or 60s. There is electricity, radios, freezers, cars, and tractors, but people are still farming with mules as well, and ignorance and superstition are rampant.

I have mixed feelings about this now-classic drama. Some parts are strong and beautifully written; other elements, such as the aforementioned shaky plotting, leave me at a complete loss.

I will be watching for other titles by this husband-and-wife team. I’ve recently read a later novel of theirs, Hazel Rye, and found it intriguing. Like Where the Lilies Bloom, a bit “light” despite the serious themes addressed, but with a certain charm and appeal, and containing passages that stay with one long after the book is reshelved.

Where the Lilies Bloom was also made into a movie in 1974, which I have not seen. The stills included in this copy of the novel show a rather inspired casting, going by appearances alone, though it appears that the movie plot differs somewhat from that of the book. The actress playing Mary Call Luther, Julie Gholson, looks perfect for her role, and the other children appear suitably cast as well. If you’ve seen this movie, or, better yet, read the story, I’d be interested in your own reactions.

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a knot in the grain robin mckinleyA Knot in the Grain and Other Stories by Robin McKinley ~ 1994. This edition: Harper Trophy, 1995. Softcover. ISBN: 0-06-44064-0. 192 pages.

My rating: 8/10, with the aside that these five short stories are über-fantasy-romantic, perhaps a tiny bit too fantastical for anyone past the age of about, oh, probably 13 or so.

Or maybe not. For anyone, teen to adult, this is total escape lit. Especially nice if you’ve already spent time in Damar.

I seriously love the cover illustration on this one, all romantically Burne-Jonesy. It’s by someone named Bryan Leister, and kudos to him, because it is perfect.

This is a collection of five short stories, three of which were previously published in other anthologies. Two are obviously set in the alternative-reality world Damar of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, two more are set in an unnamed alternative world, which could be Damar, and the last is set in the “real” world, in contemporary times. All feature completely sympathetic, strong female characters, and their male counterparts.

The Healer (1982)

The child was born just as the first faint rays of dawn made their way through the cracks between the shutters. The lantern-wick burned low. The new father bowed his head over his wife’s hands as the midwife smiled at the mite of humanity in her arms. Black curls framed the tiny face; the child gave a gasp of shock, then filled its lungs for its first cry in this world; but when the little mouth opened, no sound came out. The midwife tightened her hands on the warm wet skin as the baby gave a sudden writhe, and closed its mouth as if it knew that it had failed at something expected of it. Then the eyes stared up into the midwife’s own, black, and clearer than a newborn’s should be, and deep in them such a look of sorrow that tears rose in the midwife’s own eyes.

The baby, Lily, has been born without a voice, but she has another trait that more than makes up for that lack, at least in the eyes of the world: the gift of healing. Lily grows up beloved of her parents and ever-increasing siblings, and at the age of twelve she becomes apprentice to the midwife who was present at her birth. The two live together in love and harmony, until one day, when Lily is twenty, and she encounters a mysterious stranger on the road who can communicate with her mind-to-mind, without spoken words. Turns out that Sahath is an ex-mage, a once-accomplished master of the arcane arts, who has inexplicably lost most of his powers. One thing leads to another, and soon Lily and Sahath are sharing not just unspoken conversations but shyly blushing glances. And when Sahath puts forward the suggestion that perhaps his old mage-master could help Lily find her lost voice, the resulting journey to the mountain lake of the mysterious Luthe (yes, fellow Damar fans, that Luthe) brings all sorts of potentials to fruition.

The Stagman (1984)

She grew up in her uncle’s shadow, for her uncle was made Regent when her father was placed beside her mother in the royal tomb. Her uncle was a cold, proud man, who, because he chose to wear plain clothing and to eat simple food, claimed that he was not interested in worldly things, but this was not so…

The princess grows up under the oppressive shadow of her quietly malicious uncle, until, on her name day, when she is to be declared queen, she is instead offered as a living sacrifice to the mysterious Stagman, half-man, half-deer, who has been summoned forth by the Regent’s magicings in a swirl of ominous storms. The people of the kingdom raise no objection to the sacrifice of their princess; it is well known that she is a poor thing, of weak mind, for has not the Regent himself tried his hardest to educate her, without notable success? Into the cave then goes the maiden, to be chained to the stone wall to await her sacrificial fate. But things don’t go quite as the Regent has planned…

Luthe reappears in this story, offering succour to the Princess Ruen, unnamed until the end of her desperate journey to the inevitable mountain lake.

Touk’s House (1985)

In the best fairy tale tradition, a woodcutter steals into a witch’s garden for herbs to save his beloved youngest daughter’s life, is caught, and forfeits his next child to the witch, who claims she wants an apprentice to pass along her herb lore to. And then, still in best fairy tale tradition, things do not turn out as one would anticipate. For starters, the child in question, young Erana, has absolutely no aptitude for messing about with plants…

That’s all I’m going to say about this one; it is quite delightful, and my favourite story of the five in this book. You’ll just need to read it for yourself! (And, one more thing, because it’s by Robin McKinley – you probably don’t need me to tell you this – but it predictably morphs into a love story.)

Buttercups (1994)

There was an old farmer who married a young wife…

… but contrary to predictions, all goes well. At least until the farmer’s curiosity arouses a sleeping power emanating from Buttercup Hill…

A lovely story of a May-December romance, with two genuinely good people at its heart. A rather unusual story, this one, which doesn’t turn to tragedy as it so easily might in another author’s hands.

A Knot in the Grain (1994)

The last story in the collection returns from not-quite-here lands to contemporary times. High school student Annabelle reluctantly accompanies her family to their new home in a quiet New England town. She’s left all of her lifelong friends behind, and is having a hard time finding her new groove. Spending her summer visiting the library and rereading childhood favourites (thus giving the author a nice venue for mentioning her own favourites, from E. Nesbit to Mary Norton to Diana Wynne Jones, with a tiny shameless plug for McKinley’s partner, fellow author Peter Dickinson – I admit I chuckled a bit at that one, though I’m not much of a Dickinson fan) Annabelle is just plain ready for something to happen.

Which it does. One day, while staring at the ceiling in her attic hideaway, Annabelle notices an interesting knot in the wooden beam, which turns out to be the key to a hidden staircase, and another room. And in the room Annabelle finds a box. A box full of… well, I can’t tell you. (Nor can Annabelle.) But interesting things transpire, in a low-key sort of way.

A cute story, with a very likeable bunch of teenagers, including our heroine. Very nice. Just a titch too good to be true, though? (Says Inner Cynic.) Well, nice is a legitimate state of being, too…

*****

I feel like I should say something to sum up this collection. It’s a competently written group of stories, and very typical of the author’s early work, before she got into the edgier, darker, more adult realms of Deerskin and Sunshine. These fairy tales are aimed at the young teen reader and up, and the first four are strongly tinted with the veiled eroticism which is present in all of her longer novels. These heroines definitely all have hidden depths, and their male counterparts tend to be of the smoldering passion, glance-full-of-meaning type. Nothing to make one even blush, but it’s definitely there.

All in all, there’s not much to criticize. No masterpieces here, but it definitely should be on the shelf of every McKinley fan. I find myself rereading this one every so often; one day I’ll replace my battered ex-library paperback discard with a better, preferably hardcover copy. So – probably a recommendation, if you need it!

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rowan farm margot benary-isbertRowan Farm by Margot Benary-Isbert ~ 1954. This edition: Peter Smith, 1990. Translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-8446-6475-8. 277 pages.

My rating: 10/10. A sequel/companion piece to The Ark.

A more mature, less “sentimental” book than the also very excellent The Ark, and a classic example of a bildungsroman – a “coming of age” story – set in 1948 and centered on 16-year-old Margret but involving many other characters as well as they react and adjust to their changing situations and the challenges of the immediate post-WW II world of defeated Germany.

*****

Rowan Farm continues the story of the Lechow family, war refugees from Pomerania who have settled into an abandoned and renovated railway carriage located on a rural farm in the Hesse region of Germany (near Frankfurt). The family’s father has made the long journey from the prison camp in Siberia where he has been interned, and the joy of the family’s reunification is still strong, though shadowed by the wartime death of one of the sons, and the emotional and physical damage Dr. Lechow is recovering from.

Other returning soldiers are finding their way home all over Germany, though for many there are literally no homes to return to. An unprecedenting readjustment of the entire population is taking place, as refugees seek a place to settle and get on with their lives, while those fortunate enough to still have their properties often grimly resent the official mandate that they must share their resources and often their homes and land with the incomers.

Bernd Almut, son of matriarch Anni Almut of Rowan Farm, has found his own way home, and having regained some of his physical strength is now trying to fit himself back into the farm life which his mother has capably managed without him for so many years. The eldest Lechow children, 17 year old Matthias and 16 year old Margret, are now integral members of the Rowan Farm hierarchy, Matthias working on the land, with Margret caring for the livestock and the sadly diminished breeding kennel of Great Danes which Rowan Farm was long famous for. Bernd and Matthias have become good friends, but that relationship founders when both become infatuated with lovely Anitra, a city girl on holiday from her studies at Franfurt University.  Margret is nurturing some romantic feelings of her own towards Bernd, and he had apparently returned them until flirtatious Anitra (who can’t be all so fluffy as she looks – she is a Mathematics major) shows up. Margret deeply feels her own intellectual shortcomings; because of the war she has had to leave school some years ago, and no longer even thinks of returning to the world of studies; life has taken her a very different direction, into practical labour with her hands.

Multiple subplots abound in this novel. 11-year-old Andrea is academically gifted and is fortunate enough to be a scholarship student in the Catholic Lyceum in the nearby town; her parents are hoping that she of all of their children will be able to attend university, but Andrea has been bitten by the stage bug and has her heart set on becoming an actress. 8-year-old Joey and now-adopted “twin” brother Hans Ulrich are involved in many boyish pursuits, including raising a family of prized Angora rabbits, and running wild through the countryside every chance they get; a favourite stop is the cottage of solitary and eccentric “bee-witch” Marri, who always has a slice of bread and honey for her young visitors. Marri’s war has been a tragic one. She is the widowed mother of a lone son, a gentle and pacifistic boy; upon conscription he had willingly put on the soldier’s uniform as was his duty, but he ultimately was unable to follow orders to shoot another person, and was court-martialled and executed. Marri’s grief has brought her to the edge of madness. Fearing for her sanity, the Almuts and Lechows have tried to refocus her interest by asking her to take in a returned veteran who has himself lost his wife in a bombing raid, and who is desperately searching for his baby son, who would now be a toddler of three, if he is still alive.

There is also a young, one-armed, returned war veteran schoolmaster who falls afoul of the village mayor by involving his students in establishing a refuge for homeless soldiers; an outspoken and controversial journalist who visits the soldiers’ home and turns out to be a very unexpected individual; a American Quaker aid worker who is interested in both the Great Danes Rowan Farm raises and in the possiblilities of sponsoring the young kennel maid for emigration to the U.S.A.; a gang of black market dealers stealing local livestock; a rescued Shetland pony mare which Margret and her father nurse back to health; and two young ex-soldiers who stay for a short time until suddenly moving on, with tragic results. Musical Dieter and his band of Cellar Rats come and go, bringing a breath of the city with them as they play for the village dances and help with the haying.

Re-reading this story as an adult, I was most impressed by how delicately the author portrayed the difficulties of the returning soldiers such as Dr. Lechow. Parted from his family in the very early days of the war when he was conscripted to serve as a military doctor; finding his beloved family home in Pomerania has been lost forever; losing one of his sons – Margret’s twin brother Christian – all of these are things he takes to heart. His delicate (in his view) wife and helpless (in his mind) children have survived work camps and refugee camps and untold dangers and hardships while he himself has been incarcerated in a brutal Siberian prison camp. He finds his family at last and once he has healed enough to take an interest in their affairs, he is slightly shocked to realize that they have been functioning exceedingly well without him. His occasional attempts to regain his “beneficient patriarch” status, and his wife’s tactful handling of his delicately bruised ego and his confusion at the “new normal” he finds himself coming back to is realistically portrayed.

This story, and its predecessor The Ark, are paeans to the steadfast strength of women throughout and after the war. The men leave, usually not by choice, and either fail to return or come back terribly altered physically and emotionally. The mothers, grandmothers, wives, daughters and girlfriends who have been viewed as secondary citizens – especially in patriarchial Germany – remember that this is the land and the time of the woman’s role being defined as Kinder, Küche, Kirche – children, kitchen, church – have had to take on traditionally male tasks and for the most part have managed exceedingly well. The horrors of the war are more openly referred to in this story, including references to the death camps, and there is very much an atmosphere of both acknowledging what has happened and hoping that the future will be a more just and positive time for the survivors from all segments of German society.

All in all, a sensitive and moving story for older children (possibly 10 and up?) and adults both, inspired by the personal experiences of the author. Very highly recommended. It should follow The Ark for best effect, but can also be read alone.

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the ark margot benary-isbertThe Ark by Margot Benary-Isbert ~ 1948 (German edition: Die Arche Noah) ~ English edition, 1953. This edition: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., circa 1963. Translated from the German by Clara and Richard Winston. Hardcover. Library of Congress #: 52-13677. 246 pages.

My rating: 10/10. This is an excellent piece of juvenile historical fiction. Actually, that designation is not really correct, as it was written as a piece of “straight fiction”, being written during the time of its setting, but to readers today it is most definitely historical, so I will classify it as that.

While not a deliberately Christmas-themed book, The Ark features two Christmases as it covers a little more than a year in the lives of its characters, and it was one I thought of when I was pondering which fictional Christmases stand out as memorable in my mind.

*****

The Lechow family – Mother, 15-year-old Matthias, 14-year-old Margret, 10-year-old Andrea, and 7-year-old Joey – are apprehensively but optimistically looking forward to their new home. Since being displaced from their village in Pomerania in the early years of the war, they have been separated – Mother and Matthias to work camps and the younger children to various farms – but they are finally together again and have been travelling through Germany seeking some place of refuge amongst the hordes of other homeless, wretched, often-starving people. They had made it to Hamburg, for a brief respite among relatives, but with the city filled with Occupation troops they were unable to get a permit to stay, and were instead assigned to accommodation in a town in Hesse. Yet another boxcar ride, and then nine more months in a refugee barracks, and their turn for a housing assignment has finally come. Number Thirteen Parsley Street – the name sounds like something from a fairy tale, and they hold their breath in anticipation of what they will find there.

And they are looking forward as well to having some sort of permanent address to share with the Red Cross, for the family’s beloved father, a doctor serving with the German army, has last been heard from a year ago with a tattered postcard sent from a Russian prison camp. Every place they’ve stopped the Lechows have registered their names, “dropping breadcrumbs in the forest” like a fairytale tribe of lost children, hoping beyond hope that Father will one day be released, now that the long war is over, and will be able to track them down from the traces they have left behind.

The owner of the Parsley Street house is appalled and offended at having to receive five penniless refugees. Elderly widow Mrs. Verduz has weathered the war reasonably well, though her nerves are “shattered” from the noise of all the bombing. Her street has miraculously stayed mostly undamaged, and though food and fuel is in terribly short supply, she fully appreciates her good fortune in having a roof over her head and all of her beloved possessions around her. She grudgingly shows the Lechows the two attic rooms she has been ordered by the Housing Authority to allot to the Lechows, and muttering in thinly veiled disgust, she raids her well-equipped cupboards for sheets to cover the mattresses she’s had to provide, and a few dented pots and pans and some chipped dishes as well – the Lechows quite literally have nothing but the clothes on their backs and a blanket each.

Once the family is settled in to their new home, things do begin to look up.

Matthias is assigned work as a bricklayer’s flunky working on reconstruction, which, though far from his true interests, astronomy and nursery gardening, at least provides a small income, and the acquaintance of a co-worker – soon to be new friend – the musical Dieter, who lives in the cellar of a bombed-out house with his raggle-taggle refugee companions, who have started an increasingly successful band called “The Cellar Rats”.

Andrea goes to public school, and is fortunate in passing an examination and receiving a scholarship to a private school run by the nuns. Here she meets butcher’s daughter Lenchen, and the two become bosom friends, with Andrea exchanging help with homework for lunchtime sandwiches provided by Lenchen’s grateful mother. Andrea is sternly forbidden to angle for anything more, but the odd morsel falls her way – a boon in these very hungry times.

Young Joey also goes to school, with less enthusiasm than his sister; he reluctantly acquires a smattering of knowledge, but his happiest acquisition is a friend of his own, a perky orphan named Hans Ulrich – last name and birth date unknown, as his only childhood memory is of being bombed, and of his mother dying when they were travelling together in a boxcar in the early years of the war, when Hans was only two or three; he was unable to tell his last name so no family was able to be tracked down; he is a waif in the truest sense, though his foster-mother (who we suspect may be getting by as a prostitute) is kind enough in her careless way.

Mother gratefully settles into the small space she can at last call her own, and immediately sets about creating a home for her brood. She smooths down Mrs. Verduz, helps her with the housework, and begins to take in sewing jobs – she is an accomplished seamstress, and finds that this skill is in high demand as people start to once more have the interest in dressing themselves well, now that the fighting is over, and life is turning to a new normal. New clothes and cloth are impossible to get, but a skilled seamstress can do much with old curtains and various patches and pieces from worn-out garments tucked away in clothes chests. Mrs. Verduz has lent a sewing machine in return for mending work, and the two women are becoming partners in the challenge of keeping everyone clean and clothed and fed. Contrary to Mrs Verduz’s fears, having a family of children in residence is not such a bad thing. Matthias chops firewood and brings home the precious small coal ration, Margret has taken over the tedious job of standing in line for hours to collect food rations, Andrea washes dishes and sweeps the stairs, while Joey brightens her life with his happy disposition.

The only one who is left in limbo in this new life is Margret. She willingly does all that is asked up her, competently handling her many menial and tiresome chores, but she is just too old, at 14, for priority to return to school, and just too young to be assigned to a job, though her mother has suggested that an apprenticeship to a professional seamstress might  be a good next step. Margret is secretly appalled at the thought of spending her life bent over a sewing needle; her true life was left behind back on the Pomeranian farm which is now lost forever. There she was deeply immersed in gardening and in caring for her animals, and in rambling the countryside with her beloved twin brother Christian. A gaping hole in the family, and in Margret’s grieving heart, is carefully veiled over by everyone – Christian was shot and killed by a Russian soldier who broke into their house during the battle which ultimately displaced the family and started their years of wandering.

Christmas comes, and the family celebrates with true joy and gratitude. The Lechow children, Lenchen and Hans Ulrich and Dieter and his band decide to go Christmas carolling into the countryside, hoping for a few morsels of food or a coin or two from the relatively more prosperous farmers living around the outskirts of the town. In the course of their travels that wintry night they come to Rowan Farm, home of the widowed Mrs Almut and her elderly household. Anni Almut is a bit of a character in the neighbourhood. Endlessly energetic and outspoken, she forges ahead with whatever she sets her hand to. She has a few milk cows, raises milk sheep and ponies, and best of all to Margret’s startled recognition, keeps a breeding kennel of Great Danes. The Lechows kept Great Danes as well back in the good old days; Margret’s beloved dog Cosi was shot along with Christian, and that is another unhealed wound in her heart.

One thing leads to another, and six months later both Matthias and Margret are working and living at Rowan Farm. They have fixed up an old railcar on the farm as a dormitory, with bunk beds and a cookstove, and soon begin to fill it with the stray animals which are attracted to Margret as moths to a flame, and their town relations and friends, who are eager to come out to spend a day or two at “Noah’s Ark”, as the rail car has been christened, a refuge from the stormy seas of the outside world.

As this is a children’s book, everything continues to come together for the best, with the lost finding their way home, and old wounds healed, and the future looking positive. But the hardships and horrors of the war, though not detailed, are very much a part of the story, which ultimately celebrates the goodness that people find in the midst of the most terrible situations.

The returning soldiers are physically maimed and emotionally wounded, but they do start to heal; those who are lost are remembered with poignant sadness but not dwelled upon for the most part, as “life must go on”. The dreadful food and living conditions are dealt with creatively and are made the brunt of much humour. Our final impression is of a people and a country looking to the rising sun of a new day with optimism and hope, with a glance back to the horrors they have been involved in and a “never again” resolve.

This is a World War II book which does not reference the Holocaust and the Jewish displacement and slaughter, except by veiled allusions which most young readers will not catch. It does however in no way excuse what has happened. It rather focusses on the other innocent victims of the war, the common people, the small town shop shopkeepers, the peasants and farmers, the families and children of Germany who suffered horribly while the men were off fighting and the bombs exploded all around. People died in horrible ways, and froze and starved to death in the bitter winters even after the official truce was called. This is all in there, in the shadows behind the joy of the Lechow’s story of recovery and a happy ending.

Die Arche Noah was released to great acclaim in Germany in 1948. It caught the attention of American publishers, and was translated and released in an English edition in 1953, and was received with deep appreciation in North America. The author, beginning her writing career at the age of 59 – she was born in 1889 and had lived through the two great wars in Germany – went on to write several more children’s and young adult books, which were also translated and found ready sales overseas. Margot Benary-Isbert, herself having lost her family home and being displaced by the war, immigrated to the U.S.A. in 1952, becoming an American citizen in 1957. Her stories show her great love of both of her countries, the beloved Germany of her birth and the American haven which adopted her so graciously as it did so many other refugees from conflicts worldwide.

The Ark is often deeply sentimental and a bit “old-fashioned” in style and tone to modern ears, but the story is powerful and memorable, and strikes a strong chord with many of its readers. I was ten or eleven when I read it for the first time in my school library. I eagerly searched out the rest of Benary-Isbert’s works – our school libraries were lavishly stocked back in the 1970s – they had everything! – and when I settled into my own home and started building my book collection the Benary-Isbert books were among the first I thought I’d like to track down from my childhood favourites. Sadly they are mostly out of print, and long gone from library shelves, but were so popular in their time that they are still very readily obtainable in the online second-hand book marketplace, which is where you will have to search them out.

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