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Recent Reads: Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling

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I should confess up front here that I’ve never before read anything by Kipling – which is a *big* gap in my reading knowledge, really. However, Hesperus Press have been kind enough to provide me with another one of their lovely Hesperus Minor editions – beautiful reprints of children’s classics – in the form of his “Puck of Pook’s Hill”. As always from Hesperus, it’s an attractive edition with French flaps, and the foreword is by children’s author Marcus Sedgwick.

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To briefly introduce Kipling, Wikipedia tells us: “Joseph Rudyard Kipling ( 30 December 1865 – 18 January 1936) was an English short-story writer, poet, and novelist. He is chiefly remembered for his tales and poems of British soldiers in India and his tales for children. He was born in Bombay and was taken by his family to England when he was five years old…his children’s books are enduring classics of children’s literature; and his best works are said to exhibit “a versatile and luminous narrative gift”. Kipling was one of the most popular writers in England, in both prose and verse, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Kipling’s subsequent reputation has changed according to the political and social climate of the age and the resulting contrasting views about him continued for much of the 20th century.Literary critic Douglas Kerr wrote: “He [Kipling] is still an author who can inspire passionate disagreement and his place in literary and cultural history is far from settled. But as the age of the European empires recedes, he is recognised as an incomparable, if controversial, interpreter of how empire was experienced. That, and an increasing recognition of his extraordinary narrative gifts, make him a force to be reckoned with.”

Certainly, I think I might find some of his more colonial works a little difficult to deal with; but this story is set in the heart of old England, Pevensey in Sussex and its environs. The book opens in high summer – it is Midsummer’s Eve and two children, Dan and Una, are performing their own version of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. They like it so much that they go through the play three times; but they haven’t noticed that they’re doing so in the middle of a fairy ring… Up pops the elf Puck, called up by their play; one of the Old Things, who’ve been in England for thousands and thousands of years. He claims to be the oldest of the Old Things, and in fact we wonder whether he might be the last.

Una and Dan are obviously imaginative children, and so receptive to Puck’s narratives of the past. He begins to regale them with stories from deep history, when there were pagan gods on earth and they came to England but somehow became absorbed into the land and turned into ordinary mortals. Puck, however, does not just relate other people’s stories; instead he plucks the protagonists from the past to tell their own tales directly to the children.

As the book progresses, we find out more about the making of England – the comings and goings of various tribes, how people in the past travelled far and wide over the globe, how men fought and empires rose and fell. And each night, when the children return home from their ‘play’, Puck gives them the gift of forgetting “by Oak, Ash and Thorn” – all three Celtic sacred trees. They meet Sir Richard Dalyngridge, who has adventures at home and on the high seas; the Roman centurion Parnesius, defending Hadrian’s Wall from the Picts among uncertain political forces and a failing Roman empire; Sir Harry Dawe; and the Jewish money-lender Kadmiel, who was instrumental in one of England’s most important laws…

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I’m not sure quite what I was expecting from “Puck” but I don’t think it was quite such a deep, atmospheric, moving and engrossing book! The writing is quite lovely, and the descriptions of the Sussex landscape – the heat, the stillness, the buzzing of bees – will be familiar to anyone who’s spent a summer day in the English countryside. The stories Puck and his fellows tell us are poignant and inspiring at the same time – full of adventure (pirates and Devils in the southern seas; Viking invaders) but also change and loss (Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries and the religious wars; the waning of the Roman empire). It’s a tribute to Kipling’s skill that he can encapsulate all this in a children’s story.

“The houses change from gardened villas to shut forts with watchtowers of grey stone, and great stone-walled sheepfolds, guarded by armed Britons of the North Shore. In the naked hills beyond the naked houses, where the shadows of the clouds play like cavalry charging, you see puffs of black smoke from the mines. The hard road goes on and on – and the wind sings through your helmet plume – past altars to Legions and Generals forgotten, and broken statues of Gods and Heroes, and thousands of graves where the mountain foxes and hares peep at you. Red-hot in summer, freezing in winter, is that big purple heather country of broken stone.”

And it’s a very gripping story – so much so, that I was as lost in the tales of the past as Dan and Una were, coming back to their present (and mine!) with a bit of a shock, as Puck brought forgetfulness to the children. The tales are interspersed with poems and songs, lamenting losses, praising heroes and telling stories in their own right. One of the most moving sections of the book is that which deals with the leaving of the fairy folk from English shores, as the world becomes riven with strife which they cannot deal with. They are spirited away by boat, sailed abroad by two sons of a wise woman; one is blind and one cannot speak so the fate of the little people will never be told among mortals.

“Puck” draws on the myths and legends of England, but tells them with a twist, from the point of view of minor players – making them all the more human. Why this should touch me so deeply is a question I pondered – being an ex-pat Scot I suppose I’m technically a pict, so I shouldn’t relate to the English past. However, I spent most of my young life in Andover, a very old town in Hampshire (which gets a mention in the book!) and I do feel very connected to the southern English landscape. I found myself reflecting that there is no ‘pure’ English stock; we are a polyglot nation, formed from all the many races who’ve come and gone from our shores over the centuries. Nevertheless, I think Kipling is saying that those who stay become one with the land and from that springs the Britain we know today.

“Puck of Pook’s Hill” is a little masterpiece – wonderfully involving, full of expert storytelling, deeply moving. I read it on what felt like the first summer day of the year, with the sun shining, the air still and soundless, and bees buzzing in the back garden – I can’t think of a more appropriate book to read on a day like that, and hats off to Hesperus for their lovely new edition of this amazing book.

Hesperus Minor : More Lovely Books!

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Those of  you with better memories than me will recall that the lovely people at Hesperus Press launched their children’s imprint, Hesperus Minor, last year – and also announced a competition to suggest a lost children’s classic!

And the winner is:

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Congratulations to Adrienne Byrne, who suggested the book and therefore provides the introduction to the book – it sounds like a great read!

Hesperus Minor have published two other lovely titles:

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and

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Both of these two I recall being around quite a lot when I was a youngster, but the Goudge is new to me so I’m very pleased that I’ll be able to read and review it soon! As is usual with Hesperus, these are beautifully produced books with French flaps and very lovely cover illustrations – so ideal for any young (or not so young!) reader of these classics!

Recent Reads: The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne

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As I rambled recently, Hesperus Press have been kind enough recently to provide me with a review copy of The Coral Island, a book I haven’t read since childhood and thought I could remember nothing at all about. It’s part of their new Hesperus Minor range and comes with a lovely cover design (with French Flaps, of course) and useful foreword. It was somehow fatter than I’d anticipated but the type is of reasonable size, which is useful for someone whose eyesight is not what it was!

When I was growing up, there wasn’t a lot of money spare for books and so those I had tended to be inherited from somewhere or picked up at jumble sales. I had several battered old hardback classics, like “Little Women” and “Heidi” and or course a bedraggled copy of “The Coral Island”; none of these books had dust jackets any more, just coming in plain cloth boards, and it was a surprise to realise as I grew up that books were meant to have nice paper covers too! So this edition is of course a bit of an improvement on that long-lost copy.

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Wikipedia has this to say about Ballantyne:

R. M. Ballantyne (24 April 1825 – 8 February 1894) was a Scottish writer of juvenile fiction and wrote over 100 books.He was also an accomplished artist and exhibited some of his water-colours at the Royal Scottish Academy. He belonged to a famous family of printers and publishers.

and this about The Coral Island:

The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean (1858) is a novel written by Scottish author R. M. Ballantyne. One of the first works of juvenile fiction to feature exclusively juvenile heroes, the story relates the adventures of three boys marooned on a South Pacific island, the only survivors of a shipwreck.

A typical Robinsonade – a genre of fiction inspired by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – and one of the most popular of its type, the book first went on sale in late 1857 and has never been out of print. Among the novel’s major themes are the civilising effect of Christianity, the spread of trade in the Pacific and the importance of hierarchy and leadership. It was the inspiration for William Golding’s dystopian Lord of the Flies (1954), which inverted the morality of The Coral Island: in Ballantyne’s story the children encounter evil, but in The Lord of the Flies evil is within them.

Although considered by modern critics to feature a dated imperialist view of the world, The Coral Island was voted one of the top twenty Scottish novels at the 15th International World Wide Web Conference in 2006.

Three young lads, Jack (19), Ralph (15)  and Peterkin (13), meet on board ship where they are all setting off to sail the seven seas. But a shipwreck leaves them stranded on a coral island and they must use all their resourcefulness to survive. Fortunately, the island is the ideal place to have landed – there is food, water and shelter; the climate is mainly balmy; and initially there is no sign of hostile life. So the first half of the book consists of plenty of adventuring round the island – building a shelter, learning to make fire, hunting and fishing and preparing food; making clothing out of tree-cloth and the like. There are signs of previous civilization on the island, in the form of an old hut with a skeleton, but apart from that all seems well. That is, until we get halfway through the book, and the outside world makes an appearance in the form of warring groups of hostile cannibals. Fortunately, the boys win through on this occasion, but then events take a more sinister turn as a bunch of pirates turn up and seize Ralph – will he ever return to Coral Island and his friends?

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One of the things that astonished me at first on this read was quite how bloodthirsty the book is! There’s plenty of skull-crashing, torture, violence and cannibalism, most of which would probably not see the light of day from the pen of a modern author. But this violence *is* necessary because there is an underlying moral theme to the book, embodied by Ralph’s Christian faith and the appearance of missionaries throughout the story, bringing enlightenment to the heathen. It’s all to easy to criticise the book for its stereotyping of the natives, but this is how they were perceived at the time and allowance must be made for the time it was written.

“The morning was exceedingly lovely. It was one of that very still and peaceful sort which made the few noises that we heard seem to be quiet noises. I know no other way of expressing this idea. Noises which so far from interrupting the universal tranquillity of earth, sea, and sky – rather tended to reveal to us how quiet the world around us really was. Such sounds as I refer to were, the peculiar melancholy – yet, it seemed to me, cheerful – plaint of seabirds floating on the glassy water, or sailing in the sky, also the subdued twittering of little birds among the bushes, the faint ripples on the beach, and the solemn boom of the surf  upon the distant coral reef. We felt very glad in our hears as we walked along the sands side by side.”

However, the adventure story itself is a cracking good yarn (to coin a phrase!). The boys are a lovely group of characters, all different – Jack, the sensible leader; Ralph the dreamy philosopher; and Peterkin the young joker. Boys this young really *did* go to sea in the 1800s which is a scary thought, but they certainly have to go on a steep learning curve! The influence of Defoe is of course clear, and I did wonder whether the body of the previous resident the boys found was meant to be a reference to Crusoe! The action is the second half of the book is very exciting and the writing is lovely in places – Ballantyne is great at conjuring  up the beauty and the atmosphere of the island and the call of the ocean. It’s not hard to see why this book was so popular on its publication and continues to be so – good storytelling never goes out of fashion!

“That night the starry sky looked down through the gently rustling trees upon our slumbers, and the distant roaring of the surf upon the coral reef was our lullaby.”

I also found myself remembering little bits of plot and action as I read, which was lovely as it proved to me that I still have memories of my childhood reading! Revisiting “The Coral Island” was great fund and maybe I shall have to take a few more trips down memory lane with childhood favourites!

The Launch of Hesperus Minor!

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Following on from their competition to find a lost children’s classic (which I posted about here), today sees the launch of the children’s imprint from one of my favourite publishers, Hesperus Press!

The first three titles from Hesperus Minor are The Coral Island by R. M. Ballantyne:

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The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit:

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and The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald:

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All three are much-loved children’s classics, and it will be great to have them in beautiful Hesperus editions – the covers alone are worth having on your bookshelves! I have my copy of “The Coral Island” sitting on Mount TBR waiting to be read and I’m really looking forward to it!

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Hesperus tell me they are also bringing out two beautiful hardback editions of classic fairy tale collections by Andrew Lang – The Blue Fairy Book and The Red Fairy Book. These influential anthologies were first published in the late 19th century and I’m embarrassed to say I can remember very little about them – so it will be wonderful to be able to have brand new, beautifully produced editions, and with the original illustrations I believe. Just in time for a Christmas gift for any child (or adult!) who loves fairy tales (and I can think of a few I know!) Well done again Hesperus!

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