Monday, April 27, 2015

Lucy M. Boston and the Importance of Place: The Green Knowe series

A Stranger at Green Knowe

A word knowe, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, is used chiefly as a Scottish variant of knoll, which is a small hill of mound.

Lucy M. Boston's Green Knowe series, written between the years 1954 and 1976, features the continuing character of the manor house at Green Knowe. In the series, the house dates back to the Norman period of British history, being built and occupied by the same family, the Oldknows, originally D'Aulneaux, continuously to the present day. Green Knowe is based on Boston's real home, the manor house at Hemingford Grey. Boston purchased the house in 1939 and spent years in its restoration.

The Original Green Knowe, the manor house at Hemingford Grey.

Green Knowe is a magical place, with the ghosts of past occupants mingling with present day family members, a supernatural topiary of fantastic creatures, and a hefty dose of history.  The first book in the series, The Children of Green Knowe, establishes the history of the house and its occupants, setting the stage for future volumes. The series opens when young Toseland is sent to spend the Christmas holidays with his great-grandmother, Linnet Oldknow, at Green Knowe. While there, Toseland (it's a family name), nicknamed Tolly, meets the ghosts of three Oldknow children who lived there over 400 years ago, during the reign of Charles II.  The series is unusual in that the only character present in every book is the manor house at Green Knowe, although all of the recurring characters are generally mentioned in passing.

As with most series, it's best to read the books in order, but it's not absolutely necessary.  The first book I read as a child was A Stranger at Green Knowe, which is still my favorite, but all of the books are wonderful.  Right after reading Stranger, I checked the rest of the series out from our tiny library and read them one after another, parked on the ground underneath the weeping willow in our backyard.  It was August, summer vacation, the year before the state decided to build a major highway practically next door to our house, and my memories are of heat, humidity and a daytime silence broken only by the buzzing of insects and the humming of old power lines.

Lucy M. Boston (1892 - 1990) was born in Southport, Lancashire, England, one of six children in a well-to-do family and strictly evangelical household.  Her father died when she was six.  At age eleven, the family moved to the country, where the natural beauty of her surroundings created for Boston a sense of personal bliss, and she spent hours every day rambling about the countryside.She worked in a French hospital during World War I, married an English officer from the Flying Corps, and had one son, Peter Boston.  She later divorced, moved to Italy and Austria where she studied painting, and in 1939 returned to England and purchased the manor house at Hemingford Grey, living there until her death in 1990.

Boston did not begin writing until she was in her sixties, and part of her motivation was to finance further renovations for her home. In addition to the Green Knowe series, she also wrote stand-alone children books such as The Sea Egg (1967), the adult novel Yew Hall (1954), and the YA novel Persephone (1969).

Lucy M. Boston at Wikipedia

Book #10:  A Stranger at Green Knowe (1961) L.M. Boston, illustrated by Peter Boston.  158 pages.

Ten year old Ping first made an appearance a year earlier in The River at Green Knowe, one of three refugee children from the Society for the Promotion of Summer Holidays from Displaced Children.  Ping is an orphan, a Chinese refugee from Burma, and has survived horrific experiences in his home country and five plus years in various refugee camps.

Ping spent the previous summer at Green Knowe with fellow displace children Oskar and Ida.  Both of his companions have been placed in new homes, but not Ping.  Ida has taken it upon herself to write and ask Mrs. Oldknow, whom none of the children have ever met, if Ping can spend the summer with her at Green Knowe.  Mrs. Oldknow is happy to oblige, feeling blue over the fact that her great-grandson Tolly will not be able to visit her that year.  Ping is delighted to go, but wishes Ida and Oskar would be there , too.

But we don't know this until Part Two of the book.  In Part One, the book opens in Africa, where men are hunting for gorillas to take back to England.  The story is told from the viewpoint of the gorillas, and we see how they live, their family structure, their response to the danger of the men, and their final capture and imprisonment.  Their experience is written with clarity and empathy.  It is heartbreaking.

Hanno, one of the surviving young gorillas, is shipped to the Monkey House at a zoo in London, where he lives for the next thirteen years.  Ping sees Hanno on a school trip, and is fascinated by the great gorilla and his relationship with his keeper. Ping is an intelligent, observant, self-composed boy.

Later that summer, while the regular keeper is on vacation, Hanno escapes from the zoo and makes his way to the forests of Green Knowe, one of few places he could survive in England.  Ping, during one of his daily rambles, discovers Hanno's presence, and decides to help him, bringing him food - Hanno has an enormous appetite - and forming a relationship.  He does not tell Mrs. Oldknow.

Eventually, the authorities discover Hanno's whereabouts, and take action.  The ending is sad, but not unexpected.  One positive outcome is that Mrs. Oldknow invites Ping to come and live with her, a request that Ping is more that happy to fulfill.

Despite the sad ending, this is a wonderful book, primarily because of the excellent nature writing of Boston in Part One, and the developing relationship between Ping and Hanno, two beings both misplaced by mankind's singular cruelty and stupidity.

A Stranger at Green Knowe won the Carnegie Medal in 1961.

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