Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time! I include roundups from participating bloggers in my weekly post.
I'll just go ahead and start by saying this review is a hard one for me to write. My emotions become tied up in all of the books I have loved over the years, and it matters very little what genre they are or what the writing style is or when they were written and by whom. Those books that I really love, I tend to love with wild abandon and, once given, that devotion is rarely retracted. My friend Janicu recently commented that I am "the queen of re-reading." And this is true. I love nothing better than a cozy sit down with an old friend, and I don't hesitate to put off the shiny new tome I've got in my hand if the battered old one is the one that's calling my name. But there is one book that I can't let myself reread too often. In fact, I've only read it twice in my life. I joke (but, of course, I'm not really joking at all) that I can only read it once every decade, because the contents are too beautiful and too painful for everyday wear. That book is How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn. It sat in my house the entire time I was growing up, and I vaguely knew that it was a favorite of my mother's because of her Welsh ancestry. It was the title that drew me to it. What a wonderful title. I would go over and stroke the spine, but I never pulled it out. I think because I was worried it might not live up to its beautiful title. Finally, one summer I got the courage up to give it a shot. I've never been the same.
I am going to pack my two shirts with my other socks and my best suit in the little blue cloth my mother used to tie round her hair when she did the house, and I am going from the Valley.
Those are the the first words the reader encounters in this impressive volume. And they're the ones that made me certain this book and I would have a relationship. Growing up in a small coal mining town in South Wales, the youngest of a raft of five brothers and three sisters, Huw Morgan believed life would always be the same. From helping his mother cook her bottomless, delicious meals in the family kitchen, to taking his weekly penny down to the taffy pullers for a length of homemade taffy, to watching his larger-than-life father and stout older brothers make the daily trek down the hill and home from the mines, Huw's life is filled to the brim with the sights and sounds and people of home. In love with his oldest brother's wife from a very young age, and well aware of his lowly status within the family hierarchy, Huw knows what is his and what is not. But his is a heart that knows how to love and he watches closely over the members of his family as they encounter the myriad trials and heartaches of life and as he himself is put through the painful process of growing up and becoming a man. Along the way, almost everything about his humble life is altered, through strikes, schooling, marriage, betrayal, passion, death, and even boxing. Through it all, Huw struggles to reconcile the life that he knew with the life that is and to remember the good and the beautiful along with the bad and the ugly.
Written in 1939, How Green Was My Valley is a tribute to the Welsh people and culture. Prior to reading this book, I don't think I'd ever felt as immersed in a version of our own world as I did in this one. Many a fantasy novel captured my imagination, but a work of historical fiction set only a few decades in the past? That was a first. Llewellyn's storytelling is second to none. To this day I'm in awe of the compassion and loving attention to detail that went into the telling. A very favorite passage (from so many it's impossible to count):
Bronwen came over plenty of Saturdays after that, but I was always shy of her. I think I must have fallen in love with Bronwen even then and I must have been in love with her all my life since. It is silly to think a child could fall in love. If you think about it like that, mind. But I am the child that was, and nobody knows how I feel, except only me. And I think I fell in love with Bronwen that Saturday on the hill.I fell in love with Bronwen (and Huw) that day on the hill as well. And I have been in love with them both ever since. That simple, measured, and certain way Huw has of narrating his story sort of swallowed me from page one. Told in alternating passages between the present and the past, the man and the boy, the narrative incorporates the reader in such a way that it becomes almost immediately painful to contemplate your inevitable extraction from it all at the end. This is one of those ones where you dread the turning of the final pages. And, if you're me, you're having trouble seeing them because the tears are welling up so quickly and so close together. Yes, an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and loss pervades all 600+ pages, but somehow it stops well short of being trite or cloying. So much of it is the beautiful, beautiful language. I would love this book for the language alone, if for nothing and no one else. It is unmatched. It haunts me, tripping after me out of nowhere sometimes. The sing-song sentences, the inverted wording, and the lovely names come back to me over and over again, and I'm once again in the Valley with Huw and Bronwen, Ianto and Angharad, Gwilym and Dai Bando. I read this aloud with my husband (then-boyfriend) and I really can't overstate how beautiful it is read aloud. And shared with someone else who appreciates the endless nuance and the inviting whisper of a language used to its fullest capacity, wrapped in and around characters who wring you out and own a piece of your soul by the time it is through. Truly the most lyrical and beautiful book I have ever read, I'll be all set to pick it up again in another ten years or so.
Retro Friday Roundup
Good Books and Good Wine reviews The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Book Harbinger reviews Romance is a Wonderful Thing by Ellen Emerson White
Chachic's Book Nook reviews And Both Were Young by Madeleine L'Engle
One Librarian's Book Reviews reviews The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett