Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Looks Like Historical Fiction, Sounds Like Historical Fiction, but Not Really Historical Fiction.

Leon Garfield and the England That Never Quite Was.

Leon Garfield had his own vision of the England of days gone by, and that is the England you will find in his stories.

It's a fascinating place.

Garfield's exclusion of excessive and accurate historical detail was deliberate.  The man did his research, above and beyond, that is not the issue.

But Garfield wasn't interested in writing a historical tome that left no detail, however minor, unearthed. He wrote historical fiction, and he did his best to present his characters with the knowledge that the character would likely possess of his own times, and often times, what that character may have known, and based their actions upon, would have been wrong or only partially right.

Pretty much how you and I live right now.

In today's review, we have an example of a young man operating on a premise based on a misconception.

Sound familiar?

Book #29: Footsteps (1980) by Leon Garfield. 196 pages.

In the 18th century country town of Woodbury, some miles from London, twelve-year-old William Jones lies in his bed and listens. Night after night, from the bedroom directly below, his ailing father paces the floor, mumbling to himself in a voice too low for his son to hear. William loves and respects his father, but knows that he is a disappointment to him, with his consistently dirty fingernails and general thickheadedness.

The family, William's mother and two sisters, are worried, and circumstances do not improve with the arrival of William's Uncle Turner, his mother's brother, a big, blustering bully and blowhard who packs away enormous amounts of food and ale and constantly criticizes William, who he considers soft.

William's father made a fortune in coffee, and the family is well-off, a fact of considerable bearing in Uncle Turner's continued presence.  William does his best to avoid him, but as he has something of a temper himself, flare-ups are inevitable.

One night, the footsteps stop.  William, certain that his father has died, makes his way to the bedroom, only to find his father fully dressed and standing.  The elder Jones glares at his son, then softens, and asks William to help him to his chair by the fire.  He asks his son what he's heard, and William replies that he hears his footsteps, night after night.  His father swears him to silence on the matter, and then gives William his gold watch, telling him to be careful how he winds it, and then succumbs to a fit a coughing.  He tells his son that a man named Alfred Diamond was his friend and partner, and that he, William's father, created him. He tells William that his father is nothing but a scoundrel and a thief.

William returns to his room, furious at his father's revelation and feeling decided that the man he so admired was not who he believed him to be.  When he gets up the next morning, he feels better, and decides to tell his father that he forgives him, and that there is no more need to walk the floor every night.  But he is too late.  His father is dead.

A few days later after the funeral, William gets into a fight with his Uncle Turner, who accuses William of stealing his father's watch and not showing proper respect. William is furious at the accusation, and the fact that he perceives his mother and sisters as agreeing with his uncle. Later that night, he runs away, determined to go to London, find Alfred Diamond, reveal what he knows, and prove to his family that his father was not the saint everyone thinks.

He catches a coach and is disappointed when his arrives in London, for it is to him crowded, noisy, and full of foul orders. He makes his way to a man his father mentioned, a Mr. K'Nee, an attorney, at Foxes Court.  In the cramped building, the elevator - or a contraption like it - is operated by a Mr. Seed, who is a dwarf about 40 years of age.

When Mr. K'Nee tells him to go back home and forget all about the matter.  Reference is made to a treasure, possibly ten thousand pounds, that might have been hidden by William's father, but K'Nee is quick to disabuse the notion, is somewhat unconvincingly. Boys and fools, says Mr. K'Nee, always dream of treasure. William, frustrated at his lack of assistance, goes home with Mr. Seed, but not before a Mr. Jenkins, Nr. K'Nee's clerk, who has been eavesdropping on the conversation, tells William to meet him later at a certain tavern, because he has information William might find helpful.

What follows is a series of mishaps, double dealings and narrow escapes from calamity.  Mr. Jenkins introduces William to a Mr. Robinson, who both talk over his head but allow William to pay the bill.  The two men tell William that Alfred Diamond is dead, but his son, John Diamond lives.  They can take William to him the next night. But that night, William is attacked by a band of street boys, the same boys who attacked Mr. Seed's house the day before.  William manages to escape, without his money, and meets up with Jenkins and Robinson.  Jenkins appears uncomfortable and leaves, and Mr. Robinson is revealed to be none other than John Diamond.  Diamond hates William, because of the actions of his father, and calls out the same gag of street boys to attack him. William runs, suffering no illusions that he will continue to live if any of the catch him.

Just when it appears that William is cornered with no chance of escape, he is roughly pulled into a building but someone who holds his hand over his mouth to keep him quiet. After the last sounds of the gang of boys fade away, William is released.  Turning, he sees that his rescuer is one of the boys from the gang called Shot-in-the-Head, who William had two days previous allowed to escape when he was cornered after attacking Mr. Seed's house.

Shot-in-the-Head lives on the rooftop of a building, where he stores all the treasures he procures on his daily snick-and-lurk expeditions. Shot-in-the-Head likes shiny things, a his hidy-hole is crammed with watches, jewelry and the like. He tells William that he can stay as long as he wants, and the two become friends. Shot-in-the-Hole is fascinated by William's tale of coming to London, and has William recount it every night before the two fall asleep.

William would have stayed there forever but for the discovery of a small slip of paper hidden in his fathers watch.  It was an address.  Convinced that the treasure is hidden there, William and Shot-in-the-Head leaves the rooftop sanctuary,  and are confronted by the gang of boys.  William creates a diversion, allowing Shot-in-the-Head to escape, but then William is confronted by Diamond, who nearly kicks him to death but is prevented from finishing the job by the arrival of help.

Later, recovering at Mr. Seed's rooms, William tells him the whole story, and Mr Seed, who calls William a fool with variations, agrees to take him to the address. The morning they leave, an envelope is shoved under the front door.  Signed Anonymous, the missive goes this way and that to disclaim any actions undertaken by an unnamed other.  Seed thinks it's from Jenkins, but they are in a hurry and think nothing more of it.

Arriving at the address, they are surprised to find Mr. K'Nee and an old gentleman playing cards.  The old gentleman is Alfred Diamond, who is not dead, but was definitely cheated by Jones senior.  He bears him no ill will, but there is no treasure, although it is revealed that William is in fact the owner of Mr. Seed's building.  Alfred Diamond is not well because of his break with his son, who is consumed with getting revenge.  The letter is mentioned, causing great alarm.  Both K'Nee and Diamond believe that the younger Diamond intends to harm William's family.  William believes it too, and they rush out by coach to make their way to Woodbury.

Arriving, they discover William's house ablaze.  John Diamond, who started the fire, is trapped inside.  Operating purely on instinct, William runs in and saves him.  Both are injured in the process, John the most severely.

But Williams's family is safe, and the fire had the effect of reuniting Diamond father and son.  William's mother finally kicks Uncle Turner out for good, and all is well, with one exception.

William is worried about his friend's, Shot-in-the-Head, fate.  He needn't have worried.  Shot0in-the -Head escaped his attackers, and after holing up to heal, has made his way to William in Woodbury.  Cleaned up and properly fed for the first time in his life, Shot-in--the-Head now lives permanently with the Jones family.

And every night, the boys talk and plan of the day the two of them will retrieve Shot-in-the-Head's treasure trove from the rooftops of London. Boys and fools, indeed, but this treasure is different.  This treasure is real.

This book was a grand adventure from the first page to the last.  Garfield's writing is wonderful and his characters are all true to who they are; William is a twelve-year-old boy, not a mini-adult with a preternatural understanding of the big picture. He displays a twelve-year-old's normal preoccupation with himself, and views all happenings as somehow related to his own actions. In short, he's the center of the universe, which is understandable in a twelve-year-old, and suffers only the occasional glimmer of awareness that, well, maybe not.

For example, in the scene after the fire, William spots a boy from Woodbury, one of his schoolmates.

…I waited for him to ask me where I'd been and was ready with a full version of my amazing experiences to flatten him.  He never asked.  Instead, he insisted on telling me about everything I'd missed at school … It never occurred to him that my news was a good deal more interesting than his...

Garfield's descriptions are full of vivid imagery that captures not only the visual but also the emotional, the essence of a place or person.

Describing William's first view of London:

I looked up.  the sky, which, in Hertford, had been of a clear, wintry blue was now yellow, as if it was much older and none too well.  Even the sun had a bloodshot look and seemed to be in danger of going out.

When William asked for directions:

He told me to keep a civil tongue in my head and sent me off down a great street where all the world seemed to be rushing along one way, as if the street had been tipped and they were all swirling down into a drain.

And after a night with Jenkins and Robinson, consuming sherry after sherry:

…The pain was terrible.  Mr. Seed grinned and assured me that, in an hour or so, the worst effects of my drinking too much would have worn off; whereas now I might feel as if I had been run over by a coach and six, I might confidently look forward to feeling that it had only been a coach and a pair.

A sense of humor is a good thing.

Garfield said that he enjoyed writing stories set in the 18th century because of the age's sharp definition between childhood and adulthood.  One day you're at home, going to school, and the next you're sent away to a stranger's house to apprentice for seven years, with an entirely new set of expectations.  That William will eventually turn out well is implied through his selfless actions in saving both John Diamond and Shot-in-the-Head, whose real name is Seth.  The scenes between William and Seth are my favorite scenes of the entire book.  Everyone should have a friend like Shot-in-the-Head.

If you're looking for a good real-aloud for intermediate grades, this is an excellent candidate.  Quick moving, great story, memorable characters, fantastic writing and a happy ending. I would put it right up there with Fleischman's By the Great Horn Spoon!

Footsteps won the Whitbread Literary Award in 1980.

Footsteps at Amazon.com.

Garfield once explained in an article for Horn Book, "One does not write for children.  One writes so that children can understand."

Garfield's books are not sweetness and light, his protaganists are far from fearless and noble. His 18th century England smacks of Dickens, a city teeming with pickpockets, cut-throats and n'er do wells at every corner, with a healthy number of Stevensonian characters thrown in the mix. Garfield was, in fact, the author who completed Dicken's unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Leon Garfield (1921-1996) was born in the seaside town of Brighton in Sussex and died in London England.  He says that he always knew that he wanted to write, but took art classes prior to the outbreak of World War Two.  Garfield joined the British Army Medical Corps and served in Germany and Belgium.  He met his wife, the writer Vivian Alcock, during the war. Vivian studied his artwork and suggested that he pursue his dream of writing.  Garfield worked as a medical technician for twenty-three years before his writing career took off. He said that Vivian's support was the key, and remarked afterwards that he finally realized that all the time she was supporting him, she could have been writing her own books.  It wasn't until Garfield's career began to slow downing the eighties that Vivian took up her own writing full-time.

Garfield wrote for both children and adults, and published over sixty books during his lifetime.  In addition to Footsteps, some of his more notable works include Jack Holborn (1964), The Apprentices (1976-1978), The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris (1971), as well as adaptations of Shakespeare, the Bible, and various mythologies.

Garfield won a number of awards, including the Carnegie Medal, and was nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award.

Leon Garfield Collection Catalogue at Seven Stories: National Centre for Children's Books

New York Times book review of The Mystery of Edwin Drood

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