As Journey to the River Sea begins, I am reminded of Sara Crewe in The Little Princess who finds herself stranded in an English boarding school after being orphaned. In 1910, Maia finds herself in the same predicament except that she is soon offered an exciting new future in Brazil. Apparently, she has relatives who own a rubber plantation on the Amazon river and her new cousins have written welcoming her to their family. Accompanied by a rather forbidding governess Miss Minton, she travels out to join the Carter family in Manaus and then her troubles begin. The Carters neglect and exploit Maia, merely taking her in for her parents’ legacy. Only Finn, a mysterious boy in a canoe offers her an escape. Setting out along the beautiful, colourful Amazon they seek out the Xanti tribe of Finn’s mother. Maia is able to use her musical talent and helps Finn to plan his future with the help of child actor Clovis. She is reunited with Miss Minton who cares deeply about her welfare and knows that she is now in her spiritual home.
I have to admit that Laura of Little House on the Prairie is for me the girl I came to know in the long-running TV series from 1974 to 1983 but eventually I read Little House in the Big Woods, the first of the partly fictional autobiographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
In the Big Woods, Ma and Pa Ingalls lived with Laura, Mary and baby Carrie, surrounded by many wild animals, most of which, Pa hunted for food. Their story of life in the 1870s and 80s is told simply in child-friendly language. Later they board a covered wagon and travel west across America as pioneers to live in the warm prairie. Here they must battle for land and to survive, working hard and sticking together through joys, hardships and sorrow. It is a life experience quite outside any we can know today which Laura tells with childlike candour.
Today’s fictional heroine, Katy Carr, is yet another character from the 19th century, but written in America in 1870 she seems so much more up-to-date. At 12, Katy is the eldest of 6 children, living with their father Dr Carr and his sister Aunt Izzie. She leads her siblings in fun and adventure, always with good intentions but she is thoughtless and impulsive, leading to a life-changing accident. Suddenly her future is severely restricted, and Katy is marooned upstairs as an invalid. She eventually decides to make her room and her company welcoming and irresistible so that her family seek her out.
You can’t help liking Katy and wishing the best for her. In What Katy Did At School, which for me was the best of the trilogy, Katy and Clover go to a boarding school in New England and in What Katy Did Next she travels to Europe. I am tempted to reread these three books by Susan Coolidge, set in a time when life was simpler.
In my youth I was enthralled by Jane Eyre and when I read it as an adult, I appreciated its quality and why this classic story still speaks to us today. Jane, who speaks to us in the first person, is an independent woman, despite her vulnerable position. Published in 1847 under the pen name Currer Bell, this could be seen as a feminist manifesto. Jane is mistreated and abused, first by her aunt and then at Lowood Institution. She enters Thornfield Hall as a plain, poor governess calling Mr Rochester her Master, in all its connotations. Finally, after running away from Thornfield in despair, she reaches Moor House where she flourishes and has the confidence to spurn the offer of marriage from St John Rivers, because she already knows the only love and passion in her life. This book has everything; social comment, Gothic horror, pathos and self-knowledge. As Jane says,
“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustainable I am, the more I will respect myself.”
I am not sure whether this book is as well known these days but it has to be included in my A to Z of favourite book characters.
The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff. How far had he walked? Nobody knows. Where had he come from? Nobody knows. How was he made? Nobody knows.
Taller than a house, the Iron man stood at the top of the cliff, on the brink, in the darkness.
In my early days of teaching in the 1970s, most primary schools classes read The Iron Man together. The length of a novella and with the essence of a folk tale moved into the 20th century, its unpredictable plot and simple messages appealed to boys and girls alike. As a poet, Ted Hughes was sparing in his words and how much he told his readers. The man made of metal is clearly described but we do not know where he has come from. Because he is eating tractors and farm equipment, the locals dig a large pit and a boy called Hogarth lures the Iron Man into it. But next Spring the Iron Man springs back out, so Hogarth leads him to a heap of scrap metal. They become friends and the Iron Man is accepted by the local community. Subsequently the Iron Man meets a “Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon” and together they help to restore harmony and peace amongst mankind.
“Haven’t you heard of the music of the spheres?” asked the dragon. “It’s the music that space makes to itself. All the spirits inside all the stars are singing. I’m a star spirit. I sing too. The music of the spheres is what makes space so peaceful.”
Here is another battered book from my childhood, Heidi.
Published in 1881 by Swiss author Johanna Spyri, it was originally written in German in two parts. Heidi was an orphan being brought up by her Aunt Dete but when she was five, her aunt decided to take her to live with her grandfather in the Alps. Called the “Alm-Uncle by the villagers at the bottom of the mountain, he was used to living alone. Gradually her enthusiasm and kind nature soften his harsh exterior. Once again, this theme of the wisdom of an innocent child brings joy to an embittered adult. Heidi also befriends Peter, a young goatherd and his family. She is living happily in the stunning countryside environment until her Aunt Dete arrives to take her to be a companion to a rich invalid girl in Frankfurt. Although fond of the invalid Clara, Heidi is bitterly homesick and finally is able to return to her home in the mountains where she has more adventures.
This is a classic book which I am sure many of you will have read.
I have long been a fan of Terry Pratchett, but my particular favourites are the books about the Guards, Death and the witches. If you’ve not read his books I wouldn’t recommend starting with “The Colour of Magic,” his first Discworld book. Try “Wyrd Sisters,” and meet the indomitable Granny Weatherwax.
The best way to describe Granny Weatherwax is to list a few quotes from the books:-
- It was one of the few sorrows of Granny Weatherwax’s life that, despite all her efforts, she’d arrived at the peak of her career with a complexion like a rosy apple and all her teeth. No amount of charms could persuade a wart to take root on her handsome if slightly equine features, and vast intakes of sugar only served to give her boundless energy.
- She was aware that somewhere under her complicated strata of vests and petticoats there was some skin, that didn’t mean to say she approved of it.
- Granny’s implicit belief that everything should get out of her way extended to other witches, very tall trees and, on occasion, mountains.
- Granny Weatherwax was like the prow of a ship. Seas parted when she turned up.
‘If you can’t learn to ride an elephant, you can at least learn to ride a horse.’
‘What’s an elephant?’
‘A kind of badger,’ said Granny. She hadn’t maintained forest-credibility for forty years by ever admitting ignorance
- Looking into Granny’s eyes was like looking into a mirror. What you saw looking back at you was yourself and there was no hiding-place.
- At home Granny Weatherwax slept with open windows and an unlocked door, secure in the knowledge that the Ramtops’ various creatures of the night would rather eat their own ears than break in.
- She was a good witch. That was her role in life. That was the burden she had to bear. Good and Evil were quite superfluous when you’d grown up with a highly developed sense of Right and Wrong.
When all hope was gone, you called for Granny Weatherwax, because she was the best.
And she always came. Always.