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Retro Friday Review: How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

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.  

Comments

  1. The pain and beauty of this most perfect of stories has never left me. Being made of far weaker stuff than Angie, I have not re-read it since finishing it the first time with my head on her lap and tears running down my face. Simply reading that opening line again ties my stomach in knots as it all comes back to me. The experience also shored up for me a firm determination to never be without this girl who brought me such wonderful stories. No one should be without the memory of this book.

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  2. A lovely, LOVELY review. I remember just bawling my eyes out when reading this. I agree it's a once a decade, and I'm about due for my second read. I definitely need to reread more.

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  3. As a proud Welshman this is one of my very favourites of all time (although I couldn't really get into the sequels.) Absolutely superb review, thanks so much!

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  4. I just came across ur blog/site and it is simply AWESOME! I like it that ur reviews r so detailed!
    Following u now!

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  5. This sounds like a terrific, touching read.
    I have seen the movie, but I didn't know there was a book. I'll definitely check it out.

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  6. I wasn't sure I loved this book after I first finished it but have realized since how lovely it is in all it's sorrow and heartbreak. So many images have remained ingrained in my memory that will never dim. That's when you know you have a true keeper. Like Aaron I'm not sure if I can ever read it again, it's so affecting.

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  7. Well, you are.

    I haven't read this one but I've always loved the title. It feels like it should be part of a poem. Is it?

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  8. its a story with so much love in it, a sweet scene can be pictured out from the story..

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  9. Just added this to the TBR pile. Can't wait! And there's nothing quite like a good re-read!

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  10. Gosh, I think it's been almost ten years since I read this and your review makes me want to revisit it. I'm not sure I appreciated it as I should have back then. There is a scene that lingers in my mind. Someone is giving birth and Huw is there. Someone turns to him and says something like, "now you know" It was so compelling.

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