Saturday, January 12, 2008

L. M. Boston

The Children of Green Knowe
by L. M. Boston
Recommended Age: 10+

Lucy Maria Boston lived almost a hundred years, and it was a good thing. She wrote eight books for children - or rather, she wrote them for herself, though they have been loved by many children-- and she didn't even start writing until she was over sixty. Five of her books were about the homey, magical grounds of the English castle Green Noah, also known as Green Knowe. This is the first of those books, and it's gorgeous.

Usually, at this point, I would be expected to tell you something about what happens in the book. But "what happens" isn't really such a big thing, in terms of plot or dramatic shape. The experience of reading this book is like being in a very lovely place that you would prefer not to leave. There are stories in it-- wonderful, fascinating stories-- and there is drama too, some of it quite hair-raising. But an overall summary of the story would be as follows.

Little Toseland, sometimes known as Tolly, is sent to stay with his great-grandmother at Green Noah during the Christmas holidays. He has never been there before, but it turns out to be the very place where he really belongs. It's an ancient but well-preserved castle with delightful gardens, though prone to flooding from the nearby river. And the cozy old house is full of the laughter and pattering feet of other children who lived there, ages ago.

Tolly gradually learns to see and hear them, and makes friends with them. Meanwhile he learns more of their history, and the history of the house in general, from his wonderful Granny Oldknow. These two-- and, it seems, others before them-- may simply be sensitive to the memory of Oldknow children past. Or the place may be haunted. Haunted, particularly, by three delightful children whose lives were cut short centuries ago-- Toby, Alexander, and Linnet-- and the wild animals and birds they have tamed. Haunted, as well, by living statues, walking trees, and other voices and figures that appear from time to time.

In the end, though, it doesn't matter whether it's real or make-believe. It is so full of innocent fun, historical drama, the love of nature, warm companionship, holiday traditions, and a touch of wistfulness, that you won't want to let it go. You will fall in love with the people, and want to wrap yourself up in the place. Luckily, you can pay a return visit in Treasure of Green Knowe.

Treasure of Green Knowe
a.k.a. The Chimneys of Green Knowe
by L. M. Boston
Recommended Age: 10+

In this second book in Lucy Maria Boston's Green Knowe Chronicles, little Tolly returns to his great grandmother's manor house for another school holiday. Once again he gets to explore the nooks and crannies of a fascinating old house, and play in its equally fascinating grounds. But most excitingly, he gets to solve another historic mystery, interacting with children who lived in another time.

Are they ghosts from the past? Is Tolly their ghost from the future? Or is it all make-believe? Whether you find the answers to these questions is not as important as the lush beauty, drama, and mystery that unfolds, mainly in the form of a series of stories Granny Oldknow tells before the parlor fire.

What makes this story different from The Children of Green Knowe is the fact that the painting with Toby, Alexander, and Linnet has been removed from the wall and entered in a show. It may have to be sold to pay for repairs to the old house. Worse yet, Tolly's three ghostly playmates have gone with their painting. To ensure that they come back, he really does need to find out what happened to the jewels that were lost the day a newer wing of the house burned down.

In that quest, Tolly is joined by two children from still another time: the late 18th century. Tolly learns about different ways of sensing things from a blind girl named Susan and a freed slave named Jacob. And you get to read passages like this:

"There are a lot of things Susan couldn't see," he said."She could smell, you know."

Tolly took a great breath of the spring night.

"Do you think she could smell stars?"

"I nearly can myself tonight. She could certainly smell the kind of thing that stars belong to and happen in. Sometimes you make things smaller by giving them a name to themselves, like 'star.' Imagine Susan taking a breath of it and just thinking all that."

As novels go, I'll admit, it is more of a collection of bedtime stories framed by a leisurely, nature-filled school-holiday idyll. But the stories are compelling, the characters are unforgettable, and the idyll is simply magnificent. Or you might look at it as one story that takes place in two layers, two points in time that somehow meet as one. I have seen other stories (like The Indian in the Cupboard series, and D. W. Jones' Time City) take a similar, fantasy view of time. But in this instance, the fantasy element is so understated that you accept it as something quite ordinary-- indeed, comfortingly familiar, like the grounds of Green Knowe itself.

One way or the other, this is the kind of book that should be standard reading for anyone learning the craft of writing. It is that beautiful.

The River at Green Knowe
by L. M. Boston
Recommended Age: 10+

Lucy Maria Boston's third book about Green Knowe uncovers a whole new aspect of the English manor house's magic. This time, the characters are different. Granny Oldknow has apparently rented out the place to Dr. Maud Biggin - an archaeologist obsessed with finding evidence that giant people existed thousands of years ago-- and her friend, Miss Sybilla Bun. And Aunt Maud has, in turn, decided to invite her niece Ida for the summer holidays, along with two children sponsored by the Society for the Promotion of Summer Holidays for Displaced Children: Oskar and Ping.

Instead of learning about the past, the children have adventures in the present... mostly. And instead of hanging around with the ghosts in the house, or communing with nature in the manor grounds, they spend most of their time canoeing up and down the river.

But what adventures they have! They meet swans, owls, hermits, flying horses, and giants. Oskar gets shrunken to the size of a harvest mouse. And on one eerie, moonlit night, the children witness a timeless enactment (or reenactment?) of savage, moon-worshiping rituals. Their imagination is boundless. Their adventures are sometimes dangerous, sometimes eerie, but mostly humorous and wonderful and touched by beauty.

Ping's imagination invests their surroundings with Asian-style magic, with stalking tigers, displaced demons, and singing fish. Oskar, lonely for his father imprisoned by the Soviets (this story takes place in the 1950s, wouldn't you know), wonders whether he or his reflection in the water is the real person. And Ida, a small-for-her-age, somewhat bossy girl, agrees to be a guinea pig in an experiment to see if "giant chow" will make her grow.

It all winds up with a delightful trip to the circus where they see an old friend, and reflect that magic can exist in the present only for children, and for adults it can only be in the past.

Filled with the same charm, beauty, and understated magic that made The Children of Green Knowe and Treasure of Green Knowe so beautiful, this new twist should keep fans of the Green Knowe Chronicles on the hook.

A Stranger at Green Knowe
by L. M. Boston
Recommended Age: 10+

Lucy Maria Boston once again proves herself to be a tremendously lyrical writer in this fourth book about Green Knowe, an ancient English manor house where all kinds of magic can happen. But this book marks a departure from the earlier stories in the series, as it actually has a tightly plotted story line as well. There are good writers and there are good storytellers, and in this instance L. M. Boston proves to be that rare combination of both.

Another unexpected twist is that the first fifty pages, and more, do not even take place at Green Knowe. It begins with the story of a young gorilla living it up in the Congo rain forest, then being captured and brought up in a zoo. And who should come to that zoo but young "discplaced child," Ping, late of The River at Green Knowe. At once Ping falls in love with the gorilla whose name has come to be Hanno. And the rest of the book is their love story.

They both end up in Green Knowe, somehow. Ping gets there because Mrs. Oldknow invites him, at the urging of Ida Biggin, whose Aunt Maud had rented the place the previous summer. And Hanno gets there by breaking out of the zoo, hitching a ride on a truck, and hoofing it cross-country. Next thing you know, Ping is playing little gorilla to the great and terrible Hanno, in their little bamboo-bordered retreat called Toseland's Thicket.

But it is not to last. It can't, can it? Men with guns and men with nets are combing the countryside for Hanno, and Ping can't keep him secret much longer. Not when Hanno eats twenty pounds of fruit and vegetables a day. For three days Hanno has a taste of living in a forest again. But when the searchers come to Green Knowe, will he choose to go back to boring captivity with the zookeeper who loves him, or to face the gun of the hunter who captured him years before?

I wish I could tell you more without giving too much away. So at least I'll quote one of the many luscious passages from this book...
Everything was wonderful to him now. The heron was flapping home across the islands to the heronry; the swans climbed up on the riverbank and there raised their pointed wings high like Seraphim before folding themselves into white curves for sleep. The river was a lake of glassy fire because the sunset was still in the sky, but over the roof of Green Knowe, pale green daylight still hung with the evening star there again, and the rapt flight of bats. So many free things! And the house itself a guardian of happiness and strange thoughts, a keeper of secrets, into which he was taking one too big for him.
I wish I could quote more bits of it at you, but the time you would spend reading it is time when you could be rushing off to buy this beautiful, exciting, perfect book.

This book won the 1961 Carnegie Medal for outstanding contribution to British literature for young readers.

An Enemy at Green Knowe
by L.M. Boston
Recommended Age: 10+

The last of Lucy Maria Boston's five books about Green Knowe injects a rare element into the magical adventures and nature-idyll of the English manor house of the title. That element is terror.

It begins when Tolly (Mrs. Oldknow's great-grandson) and Ping (a displaced Chinese boy who visits on holidays) come to spend the summer together at Green Knowe. It involves an ancient manuscript of great magical power, left hidden in the house by a wicked 17th-century alchemist. And it comes to a head when their new neighbor-- the vile and creepy Melanie Daisy Powers-- sets her sights on Green Knowe. And her curse as well.

Ms. Powers wants to have the secrets of Green Knowe's magic to control for her own evil ends. And she is willing to do anything to get them, using hypnotism, raising ghosts, sending plagues of maggots and snakes and cats and worse, and finally bringing the full force of the Powers of Darkness to bear on Granny Oldknow and the two boys.

Helped by a magical mirror, the ghost of a beloved gorilla, and a scholarly tenant named Mr. Pope, the rightful owners of Green Knowe face this terrifying villain. But will the ancient walls and gardens of Green Knowe withstand the onslaught of pure evil?

In the creepy gothic conclusion to the lush, lyrical Green Knowe series, you see another side of L. M. Boston. But the love of nature, and the laughter and play of children, and the romance of old stone houses where countless layers of time share the same space, still energizes this quick and exciting book. And the final answer to the power of pure evil - I choose those words deliberately - is one that even those who despise the occult may approve of. I give it my highest recommendation.

UPDATE: As it turns out, I was wrong about this being the last of 5 Green Knowe books. Apparently I was just going by what one particular publisher listed on the flyleaf. A sixth Green Knowe book, titled The Stones of Green Knowe, came out in 1976. Plus, if you agree with my view that Lucy Boston was a master of the writing craft, you may be interested in some of her other titles, including The Castle of Yew, The House that Grew, and Nothing Said.

IMAGES: The photos down the right-hand side are mostly of The Manor, home of Lucy M. Boston from the 1930s onward. Built in the 1130s, it is one of the oldest continuously occupied homes in Britain.

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