Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How Green Was My Valley

A 1939 best-seller, Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley has never been out-of-print, and is adored by over 40 Amazon readers, many of whom laud it as a classic: if it is not a classic, it is truly a magnificent novel about life in a Welsh mining town at the turn of the century. Narrated by Huw Morgan, who looks back nostalgically at his childhood in the beautiful valley, this gem of a novel idealizes the Morgan family as a hard-working, joyful laughing, chorus-singing family of stubborn men and women, which splits over the radical sons' union politics and and Dada’s preference for management negotiation. When the brothers move out, it is the dauntless mother’s intercession which reunites them.

Seen through the eyes of a child, politics are interwoven with relationships and the the environment. Slag heaps spread and begin to spoil the beauty of the valley and poison the trout in the river by the slag. Although Huw’s father has recommended that the slag be hidden underground, the management ignores him. Wages drop and grim strikes sometimes lead to starvation and death, but the miners, crushed by greedy management, strike for their lives and end up with an inadequate minimum wage.

But Richard Llewellyn, known best for his lyrical style, humor, and his poetic, environmentally-forward-looking descriptions, writes beautifully:

When birds were nesting we often went out to find the nests and look in at the eggs, though we never took any, mind. My father would never allow me to collect them, and he would stop the other boys, too. I think because of that, our Valley was never quiet of birds. There is strange you will never notice birds till they are gone.

We love brave Huw, who is so curious about secret union meetings that he sneaks out at night. Crippled during a wintry night when he and his pregnant mother are caught in a blizzard, he is unable to walk for a few years: but it is worth it, because his leading his mother up the mountain to speak to the union on behalf of Dada (I defy you not to cry over this scene) saves Dada from death threats . Mother collapses on the way down and Huw must likewise save her by dragging her back to the bridge in the white-out, where his brothers can find them.

Huw’s observations of his older brothers and sisters, their successes, romances, and tragedies, are moving. (Tears have been shed over my Penguin: think how many tears have been shed over library books!) When their friend Marged’s father catches Huw’s brother, Owen, kissing her, he makes a laughable scene in front of the village and Owen, humiliated, refuses to marry her. Another brother, Gwilym, marries Marged. She goes mad. In one of the saddest scenes i’ve ever read, Marged mistakes Huw for Owen and threatens him. It’s very Wuthering Heights-y: she pines for Owen as Catherine does for Heathcliff. But her hallucination hurts her incredibly and leads to a tragedy.

There is so much more to this than plot. It is a real "page-turner," but also lovely and vivid.

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