Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Growing Summer (Noel Streatfeild)

--The blurb--
"The four Gareth children have always led a very quiet life in London with their parents -- until Dad suddenly gets ill abroad, and Mum has to go out to look after him. The Gareth children are shipped off to Great Aunt Dymphna, who lives wild in an extraordinary half-ruin in Ireland. Here they are not only expected to look after themselves, they also discover that they have company -- a mysterious boy who announces that he is on the run. The children hide him from his pursuers -- but who are they? And who is the boy? The children are determined to find out..."

--The review--
While less didactic than Enid Blyton's canon, Noel Streatfeild's comforting formula is still held affectionately in the hearts of children and adults everywhere, and The Growing Summer is no exception to this: it is a successful story of family life turned upside down in the most positive and fantastical of ways, combined with a dexterous mystery element, and it is surprising that it is not more popular, particularly given that it has in the past been adapted for television.

The fabulous character of Aunt Dymphna is a triumph of children's literature who easily ranks on a par with Supergran, Mr Toad and other equally insane, madcap and hilarious characters who should know better (but don't or choose not to). She is a very welcome interlude in the lives of the prim children who are used to doing very little for themselves and who are made to learn to do things for themselves very rapidly. The story therefore also becomes a great journey of independence and self-discovery, which reinforces the themes commonly found throughout Streatfeild's work.

This could have risked making the story seem schmalzy or sugary or as if the author were trying to overdo it in the 'inspiring' stakes, but this is well-tempered by the subplot of the odious young boy that they take in and hide, and whose real background is only discovered later and his lies seen through. This is just one of the narrative hooks keeping the reader impelled to read on; add to this the descriptions of the beautiful Irish landscape and the marvellous outdoor expeditions that the children and Aunt Dymphna embark upon, and the resultant magical blend makes for excellent rainy-day reading, allowing we as readers to escape our own universe completely.

It also serves as an appropriate touchstone for Streatfeild's work as an example of memorable characters and a high-quality, well-executed storyline. What is perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that by this stage (1966) Streatfeild was already thirty years on from her children's fiction debut, Ballet Shoes (published in 1936), and that in spite of that, at the age of seventy-one, she showed no signs of waning.

Other children's fiction by Noel Streatfeild
  • Ballet Shoes (1936)
  • Tennis Shoes (1937)
  • The Circus is Coming (1938) (also published as: Circus Shoes)
  • Curtain Up (1944) (also published as: Theater Shoes)
  • Party Frock (1946) (also published as: Party Shoes)
  • The Painted Garden (1949) (significantly abridged and published in the U.S. as: Movie Shoes)
  • White Boots (1951) (also published as: Skating Shoes)
  • The Fearless Treasure (1953)
  • The Bell Family (1954) (also published as: Family Shoes)
  • Wintle's Wonders (1957) (also published as: Dancing Shoes)
  • Apple Bough (1962) (also published as: Traveling Shoes)
  • A Vicarage Family (1963)
  • The Children on the Top Floor (1964)
  • Away from the Vicarage (1965)
  • Caldicott Place (1967) (also published as: The Family at Caldicott Place)
  • The "Gemma" series (1968-9)
  • Thursday's Child (1970)
  • Beyond the Vicarage (1971)
  • Ballet Shoes for Anna (1972)
  • When the Siren Wailed (1974)
  • Far To Go (1976) (a sequel to Thursday's Child)

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