I thought this book would work for the Reading Wales hosted by Book Jotter. Sadly, Karen at Booker Talk however, pointed out that though born to Welsh parents, Richard Llewellyn is not considered a Welsh author and that he lied about being born in Wales! Not good. Happily, her blog includes another great list of true Welsh authors. And hard to take when the story was so beautifully told. I’m trying not to let that sordid news kill my joy in the story. (This controversy ties in nicely with the Reading Wales book choice for this year: Sugar & Slate by Charlotte Williams, which debates who is Welsh! Two Welsh parents doesn’t add up to being Welsh).
Note: This is a very hard book to review. It is a coming of age story and story of societal change.
Late in the 19th Century, a young boy was growing up in the large family of a coal miner–or mine worker since his father was employed above ground. Few coming of age stories have been so beautifully told. As Huw grows up, the mines grow “in”–in closer to the family’s home. We watch a few of his many brothers become involved in forming a union–against their father’s wishes. Another toils in the mine, the comes home to work on inventions. Huw is bright and his father determines to send him over the mountain to the National School. There he encounters a sarcastic and sadistic teacher. Huw’s spirit is saved by a patient pastor and by the steadfastness of his family.
We see the tale of life in the mining village and on and around the mountain as the times change. The morality of “Chapel” is show in the true light of day–some are sincere believers who act kindly, others are full of their own importance and take pains to put people down–just like today. We see the family working and then trying to relax without being bored to death by the lack of entertainment. They turn instead to books. To the Bible, of course each night, but also to what books they own. None are light reading and Huw admits to how the struggled with a few of them.
“O, there is lovely to feel a book, a good book, firm in the hand, for its fatness holds rich promise, and you are hot inside to think of good hours to come.” “How green was my valley then, and the valley of them that have gone.”
All the time though, Huw’s family are educating themselves either through doing or observing, or by reading aloud. Huw learns woodwork; a brother tinkers with inventions that help him build a career. When, later on, Hugh goes to a see a play with a girl just for fun, his father is horrified. (I feel like his father any time I try watch so many of today’s movies or t.v. shows!) Beyond reading there is only the Chapel choir and rugby or boxing for entertainment.
As his life goes on Huw must make choices–to leave home or stay in the mines is the biggest. His brothers go off to make their way in the world in the US or New Zealand. He must come to decide what he wants from life. Meanwhile, the mines are encroaching more and more into the town
This was one of the most beautifully-written books I’ve ever read. I’m only sorry I waited till age 60 to read it! There is so much in it that shows up in Appalachia (as we will see next week) and in non-farming towns of the Midwest still today. I especially liked the emphasis on faith and the fact that the mother was so careful about planning for her family’s well-being.
Mothers still must be far more cautious than Fathers in protesting in the workplace. They must think ahead to the outgrown shoes, the empty stomachs, the prescriptions needed when a child is ill. Yes there is welfare and food stamps today, there are food pantries and clothing ministries but mothers are the ones who must go stand in line and fill out the humiliating forms and take the charity that they often do not protest.
“There must be some way to live your life in a decent manner, thinking and acting decently, and yet manage to make a good living.”
There were so many parallels to today as well. The radicalization of the workers–today’s political climate is either far left or far right, and then, too, we have the “Great Resignation” going on which is very radical indeed. The backlash against former Colonial and slave-owning powers, too, is mirrored in the mistrust and dislike of the English by many in the book. The debate about language–whether English or the “real” language of the people should be used and celebrated is still on-going today. Companies today give great lip service to saving the environment while trading in air pollution waivers and similar. And, of course, most sadly of all, CEO’s still earn such a sickening amount of money they might as well be given Dukedoms to go with it.
How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn