H is for Hemingford Grey.
As I’m sitting on a train crawling past flooded fields and impassible roads it strikes me that there’s no more fitting book to be reading this Christmas than Lucy M. Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe. The weather plays a central role in the book, the plot turning on a new twist in the winter conditions, from floods to snow, ice to thunder storms.
The story begins as our hero, seven-year-old Tolly, is also taking a train through a flooded English landscape. Thankfully his journey is not held up due to signal failures between Paddington and Slough, and he arrives safely at the aptly named Penny Soakey. It’s then on by car and eventually boat to his Great Grandmother’s home, just in time for Christmas.
The family seat is a castle named Green Noah on account of its ark like position above a flood plain. But it’s also a derivation of the ancient Green Knowe, a name with a terrible curse attached. It’s the perfect set up for that most comforting of traditions, the Christmas ghost story. But this isn’t quite like any other ghost story.
Green Noah is inhabited by a the spirits of three children who died in the plague several hundred years before. Toby, Alexander and Linnet are Tolly’s ancestors, and almost as soon as he arrives they make their presence known. Tolly is not afraid, all he wants to do is play. Their tantalising presence fills him with joy and a physical connection to the past. As they tease him with their ghostly games of hide and seek Tolly becomes increasingly desperate to be in their company.
If this book had been written today the received wisdom would have been to make Tolly a little older, so that that the aimed readership – about nine or ten – would have a character to look up to. Boston felt no such compunction and makes him a seven year old. It’s a brilliant piece of casting, not dissimilar to Lucy in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. The seven year old is still able to accept, without question the strange haunted world into which he has floated. Everything he does is an impulsive reaction to the supernatural (and natural) events unfolding around him.
On the other side of things is his mischievous Great Grandmother who is old enough not to qualify as a boring adult. She breaks up the present day events with fireside tales from the past. It’s her complicity and encouragement that help drive the story to its dramatic conclusion.
Like Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman this is a book filled with adventure but is ultimately about loss. It’s not until halfway through, after the snow has settled that the children make themselves fully visible to Tolly, and only then does it dawn on him that they are in fact dead.
‘He must have known somehow that the children could not have lived for so many centuries without growing old, but he had never thought about it. To him they were so real, so near, they were his own family that he needed more than anything on earth. He felt the world had come to an end.’
As Christmas morning dawns Tolly finally accepts the children for what they are and begins to become reconnected to the physical present. It’s beautifully sensitively handled, and even though Tolly is moving on, the reader will always be left with a little of the Children of Green Knowe.