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BGHB at 50: Unleaving

In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, established in 1967, we will be publishing a series of appreciations of BGHB winners and honorees from the past. This is the first in the series; further installments will appear in the Horn Book Magazine and on hbook.com throughout 2017.

Patonwalsh_UnleavingI first encountered the English novelist Jill Paton Walsh through Unleaving, her 1976 novel for young adults. I was a callow twenty-three. Sandra Jordan, who would soon become my first editor, wanted to impress me with the glories of the lineup at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, where she was the head of children’s books. She handed me the slim volume, newly honored with the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. I read it on the train back to Boston. After forty years, Unleaving remains on my list of most-admired novels for any audience. In its ambition, its narrative legerdemain, its euphoric prose, as well as its moral and intellectual sobriety, it has few competitors.

In time I met the author. We both taught at the Simmons College Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. We became founding board members of Children’s Literature New England (CLNE). Though I’ve benefited from an abiding friendship with her, I’m writing here about this elegantly deceptive card trick of a novel.

Unleaving entwines two different stories of two separate seasons spent on the Cornish coast. Half of the sections concern a teenage girl, Madge, who upon the death of her grandmother inherits a sturdy old house called Goldengrove. A bright but isolated girl, she is enjoined to host a reading party of Oxford scholars for the summer. The other sections also take place at Goldengrove, though in a different summer; they involve the musings of an elderly woman, gathering her family around her in what we assume might be her last holiday. We’re forgiven for being uncertain about the identification of this second main character, the sprightly and enthusiastic Gran. Yes, there is a death, perhaps a murder; yes, there is romance. The stuff of fiction. But the hair-trigger plot isn’t what will stick with you when you’ve reached the last page.

* * *

Unleaving is a short work — under 150 pages. Nearly a novella, really. There are no chapters: it’s presented in fifty-one unnumbered sections, averaging three pages a section. Much of the telling is crisply spare, easy to visualize. Let me put it this way: when I’ve led writing seminars for middle-school kids, I’ve said, “Don’t try to write a story. Just come up with an episode that Steven Spielberg could film the moment he finishes reading your paragraph — enough sequential action and conversation for a camera to track, and only enough descriptive detail to inform the crew dressing a set. Give us something we can see, movement we can follow. Drama will seep up of its own accord.”

In the example that follows, doesn’t the young woman’s arrival in a house newly visited by death unspool in your mind as a minute of movie-making? You can almost hear the caesura in the soundtrack as the union musicians lift their bows off the strings:

The house is silent within, and dark. Madge puts down her shoes and her bag, and hangs up her coat. Her naked feet, dew-wet, leave ghost footprints on the polished floor. She turns the cool brass doorknob, and goes into the darkened room beyond the living-room door.

And lest you roll your eyes and think, “So, okay, it’s clear, if a bit foreign-filmy; so what?” — here’s a second instance. An outdoor funeral procession in a harbor-side village in Cornwall, in some unidentified early decade of the twentieth century:

Suddenly an explosion cuts through the minister’s voice, a bang like a gunshot. The maroon leaves an arc of fire in the sky for a short second, launches a brief green star in the daylight sky. Smoke billows thickly around the doors of the lifeboat shed, and a red pennant glides up to the masthead on its roof. The coffin-bearers shift uneasily. The crowd of mourners looks at them; a second maroon finds them all silent, waiting, even the prayer suspended. The second summons cannot be ignored. The bearers put their hands to the coffin, raise it from their shoulders, and lower it to the ground. One of them — Jeremy, the fisherman — looks around with a brief glance to the minister, before all six break into a run, and clatter away down the street. The coffin lies on the sleek cobbles, with its flower wreath askew.

“Really!” mutters Mr. Fielding, distressed, nearly uttering his outrage. But the minister is not disconcerted.

“Well, my good people,” he says, “You see how it is. Now who will come forward to help bring our sister on her way to her last rest?” There is a moment of confusion. A little group of men measure up to each other to match the height of their shoulders, and one brother borrows another’s dark coat, and struggles into it. Gently the coffin is lifted again.

Again: cinematic. Quiet on the set. Lights, places, wind machine. Action.

* * *

Many will recognize that the book’s title comes from the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem known as “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child.” It launches like this:

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Before Unleaving, Paton Walsh had written of Madge and her Cornish haven in a less ambitious novel for young adults called Goldengrove. In the Hopkins poem, the word “Goldengrove” describes a child’s first experience of autumnal leaf-fall. A forest flares its mightiest colors before dropping its leaves, an emblem of death. Keyed in to the literary reference, we realize that Unleaving will concern itself with the departure from childhood innocence, with mortality and its mysteries.

In a lecture given at a CLNE conference, author M. T. Anderson proposed that novels, like poetry, teach us how to read them. Some few, rare works rely on apparatuses of original design that we must learn to climb upon. Unleaving is such a novel. If we put in the time and effort, the climb is worth it. What a view.

…she is the first to see the children, her grandchildren, Peter and Sarah, and small Beth, dancing naked in the cool rain, their tender bodies shining wet with the falling drops, throwing their arms up, tilting their faces to the sky, eyes closed, mouths open, their bare feet drumming the soft wet grass, making a trodden ring among the daisies…And in her mind the rain is an element of eternity, showing in its brilliant light-catching instant of fall the eternal aspect of the momentary now.

Once, also in a CLNE lecture, Jill Paton Walsh outlined her concept of narrative trajectory, which isn’t the same thing as plot. Restating it in my own words, trajectory refers to an author’s strategy for unpacking, revealing, dispensing in weighted sections all the materiel of the novel—its moral and aesthetic ambitions, not just its plot as could be retold in a book report or pegged to a timeline on a storyboard. Still, there is a pulse-racing plot.

One of the professors in the Oxford reading party arrives with his wife, handsome teenage son Patrick, and younger child Molly, who has what we now call Down syndrome. As the summer students read philosophy and consider such heady matters as ethics, the existence of God and of design in the universe, the relative worth of knowledge and of feeling, Madge and Patrick make common cause. They’re both marginalized on the outskirts of the group of university scholars. Molly roams about, in and out of view of her well-meaning but distracted parents. Suddenly the summer idyll turns tragic. (Spoiler alert: synopsis follows.) Molly tumbles off a cliff; a member of the lifeboat crew drowns in an attempt to recover her body; and Madge has to review what she knows and feels about Patrick and his possible complicity in the death of his sister. And what to do about it.

It’s for matters like these, postulations about how we are to behave in untenable circumstances, how we might approach moral matters of the most urgent sort, that the novel as an art form took root, and survives.

* * *

The theme of Unleaving is breathtaking in its simplicity and audacity: given our status as imperfect beings, how will we choose to live with one another in this tremulously beautiful and perilous world? Is there a more pertinent question for the young adult — for anyone? And yet despite its timeless theme Unleaving may be a stretch as a YA novel for contemporary readers.

Unleaving’s tectonic plates abut each other along the fault line between thinking and feeling. The earnest and thoughtful students contemplate textbook questions of philosophy. Today’s readers — we adults and kids alike afflicted with our shrinking attention spans — aren’t used to slowing down to make sure we’ve followed the argument. And however crisp and dramatic, this is an old-fashioned novel of ideas. Paton Walsh does a terrific job keeping the intellectual sections brisk, engaged with the real world and not just the ideal. And these sections do teach one how to read them. But, yes, they benefit by rereading, and in our Snapchat, Twitter-feed world, too few readers (of any demographic) are primed to revisit a challenging passage. It’s our loss.

“…you think the end justifies the means, and in a corner you would probably kill, maim, cheat, fornicate, etc., etc., as long as doing so would achieve some good end or other.”

 “Don’t be ridiculous, Matthew,” says Paul.

 “I’m not being ridiculous; I’m telling you about means and ends.”

 “Well, what about a serious example?” says Patrick. “What about the doctor who came and cured Molly last year, when she was quietly dying in her sleep of some infection or other? What about that?”

 “No, Patrick, don’t!” says Madge.

 “Why not?”

 “I think,” says Madge, deeply agitated, “you probably shouldn’t do philosophy with serious examples!”

Moving between the young people’s discussion of situational ethics and the actual distress they suffer is demanding: demanding, and profitable. Having to reread a novel to understand it more fully doesn’t disqualify it as excellent; sometimes it’s a measure of the work’s complexity and daring. Can one hear Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue only once and conclude, “Been there, done that”? A work of art reveals itself through time.

* * *

After I came to know the author as a friend — as Jill — I was invited to visit her and her husband, John Rowe Townsend, in Cornwall. Like Madge at the start of Unleaving, I arrived on the train that takes fifteen minutes to shuttle, back and forth like a toy, between St. Erth and St. Ives. Many of the views I saw from the cliffs were already apparent in my mind from the book.

…the lovely glassy curves of the rising waves, blinding white on the breaking crests as they avalanche in walls of white foam racing shoreward, transfusing the drift of smoke, as they break, and the spindrift blows off them on the wind. The lighthouse tower is painted white, hexagonal, one of its three visible sides lit brightly, and two in light shadow, softened by reflected brightness from the dancing sea.

The lighthouse on Godrevy Island in St. Ives Bay is a steady fixture in both strands of the story, a distant and permanent beacon — almost (it seems to me) a divorced yet observant deity. That week I examined the structure in dawn light and dusk, seeing not only the lighthouse in Jill’s book but the one in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In Woolf’s modernist masterpiece, the Ramsay family is shown holidaying up in the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland. But Godrevy Lighthouse in Cornwall must have partly inspired To the Lighthouse: until the age of thirteen, Virginia Woolf summered in St. Ives, just along the road from the stout gray limestone house in which Unleaving is set. From her family’s summer home, Talland House, Virginia Woolf in childhood could see views at nearly the same angle of light and perspective that Jill Paton Walsh, also while in impressionable childhood, came to love nearly fifty years later. For, as a small girl, Jill was evacuated from wartime London to shelter with her grandmother above Porthminster Beach. Another storm, another lifeboat.

I’m told the house that stood in as Goldengrove — Jill’s grandmother’s house — is now gone. But Godrevy Lighthouse remains.

So we can conclude that Unleaving means to pay homage to Virginia Woolf. Just as strongly, it celebrates the vitality of early childhood experiences. In addition to its other accomplishments, Unleaving is also, as Tennessee Williams called The Glass Menagerie, a memory play. Jill lived at Goldengrove in childhood. Didn’t we all?

* * *

I hope I haven’t steered you off the shoals of this bracing and morally thrilling novel. Let me finish with the verso of tragedy — uplift, catharsis. When my husband and I were married twelve years ago, we chose a dozen readings for friends to present. Our own sacred texts. Folk songs and biblical passages — the prologue of the Gospel of John — as well as poetry by Rilke and Baudelaire, and prose bits from Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Thomas Mann. The final selection of the ceremony was from Unleaving. The author, a wedding guest, read two paragraphs from the novel’s close.

The grandson, dancing on the lip of his beginning life, poses a question to the old woman.

“What shall we sing about?” he asks her, but his solemnity is tripping over into laughter, is getting too much for him. And, what shall we sing about? Madge asks herself. Why, whatever brute or blackguard, or random chance made the world, was surely a marvelous conjuror, a dab hand at spectacle! What shall we sing about? Fish to eat fresh from the salt sea, sweet berries from the thorn, bread from the brown furrow, and the orient wheat. We shall see every day, if we just raise our eyes to the hills, the movements of wind and water, and the fall of the light. There are never two moments the same, what with sky and weather, and tide, the passage of time, and the random fall of the rain. To be alive is to be bodily present, to notice where and when one is. Here we are: like amateur actors on some magnificent stage, dwarfed by the cosmic grandeur of our setting, muffing our lines, but producing now and then a fitful gleam of our own, an act of mortal beauty.

“What shall we clap?” she says to Peter. “The lifeboat in the storm. What shall we sing? The beauty of the world!”

From the March/April 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, click the tag BGHB@50.

Gregory Maguire About Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire is the author, most recently, of Egg & Spoon (Candlewick), a 2015 Boston Globe-Horn Book Fiction Honor Book, and a forthcoming novel for adults, After Alice. For twenty-five years he co-directed Children’s Literature New England, which he also helped found.

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