Totte, or Thomas

Author and illustrator Gunilla Wolde died earlier this week. I realise that many of my English language readers won’t know her. On the other hand, you might. I was surprised, and delighted, to find that author Guy Bass made his parents read Thomas bakes a cake every night for two years. That’s the kind of tenacity that pays off eventually. (Or they try and have you adopted.)

Gunilla Wolde, Totte badar

As with many Swedish authors, Gunilla’s books came too late for the young Bookwitch to read them at the appropriate age. But being classics, they were widely available when Offspring appeared on the scene. (I’m actually not sure, but I suspect I owned mine well before Offspring arrived. I think I just liked the look of the books.)

I tried searching for them now, so I could tell you more, but couldn’t find where I’ve stashed them. The one that has stayed in my memory the most, is when Totte – or Thomas, as he is in translation – goes to the doctor. There is something about toddlers facing injections, or putting plasters on their teddies, that makes a lasting impression on you. (Perhaps I didn’t dare show Offspring those injections, in case they thought that’s what happens when you go to the doctor’s.)

Looking for cover images you find so many, in several languages, which brings home to you quite how popular Gunilla’s books were. Are. And if you study the ‘Swedish’ images page carefully, you will find illustrations that might be too, well, too Scandinavian for readers in some countries.

So you’re probably safest with Thomas bakes a cake.

Living WWI

Having so recently re-read Rilla of Ingleside by L M Montgomery and seen the film made of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, I’ve come to realise that there is a difference between all the modern war stories – however excellent they are, because they’ve been written by great authors, who have researched the war thoroughly – and these two books written by women who lived through it.

They aren’t the only ones, I’m sure, but they are the women I’ve got fresh in mind right now. One wrote a biography and the other wrote fiction, but both offer the reader what you don’t get in later, period fiction, and that is the day-to-day facts. Other books might have the Somme, which Rilla barely mentions. It’s just one of the many place names they got far too familiar with over those four years.

Even the Blythe’s Susan keeps up with the news, learning about geography in an unforeseen way, reading the paper and keeping track of what she thinks of Wilson and Kitchener and the Kaiser.

Vera Brittain lived through the war at a much closer distance, eventually being part of it. What I remember most vividly is all the travelling she did, back and forth, to the war, through the war and away from the war. Her autobiography, of necessity, contains all of WWI, in some form or other.

L M Montgomery wrote Rilla a few years after the end of the war, when presumably everything was still fresh in her mind, and she knew these places in Europe and beyond as intimately as the Blythes did. Which will be why she put all of that in her not-so-idyllic novel, and why she had to send Anne’s and Gilbert’s sons off to war, and let the girls work at home for the war effort. It’s why she couldn’t let all her characters live. Because it wasn’t like that. Lots of Canadian boys went and never returned.

That is something Vera Brittain knew from personal experience. She lost everyone.

And then, I wonder if both women wrote their books believing they had gone through hell, but come out the other end, and that a new better world would be sure to come of it?

Vera had a son, but I don’t know if he fought in WWII. I’m thinking he might have been too young. But Rilla’s children, if she had any, would surely have had to fight in the next war, as would her nephews, as well as her soup tureen baby.

I hope Susan never found out about that.

As I read Rilla this time, I needed to go back and check when the other books were written, rather than when they were set. I had to know if L M Montgomery knew that Anne would have to lose a child to the war, and I suspect she must have, when she gave Anne and Gilbert their children.

Living through a war is not the same as reading ‘highlights’ later on, and by living I mean even those who are safe and far away. It’s the hearing of each battle as it happens, rather than learning it second hand.

I’m not saying authors now shouldn’t write war novels. On the contrary, I think they must. But it’s interesting to note the difference.

Rilla of Ingleside

I’d read L M Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside before. A long time ago. It was the one I remembered well but couldn’t get hold of as I bought all the Green Gables books in English, thirty years ago, so I’m particularly pleased it’s one of the ones re-issued by Virago. It’s also the first book to bring the reality – for normal people – of WWI to my attention.

L M Montgomery, Rilla of Ingleside

I mean, if L M Montgomery couldn’t even fictionally keep Anne Shirley’s family safe from the war, then no one was safe. Which, obviously, was the truth. Before Rilla I had callously imagined that people back then were used to it and that it was a long time ago. And anyway, Anne lived in Canada, hundreds and hundreds of miles from the trenches.

Rilla of Ingleside is a sweet book, for all that it features the war so much that there is barely room for any romantic nostalgia for life on Prince Edward Island. Anne and Gilbert are growing old, and back then 50 was probably a lot older than it is now. So we concentrate on 15-year-old Rilla as war breaks out, and her brothers and friends go off to fight, one after the other, or at least to do their bit for the war closer to home.

The years between 15 and 19 were meant to be the best of her life. Instead they changed her completely; making her someone who could quite capably knit socks for the soldiers by the end of those four years. And a few other things, too.

Like what you can use a soup tureen for, and that it is possible to love an ugly baby that isn’t even yours.

There were just two things that made me cry, though. It was the neighbours’ little boy, Bruce, picking flowers for Anne (stupid Witch, crying again, now), and Jem’s dog, waiting all those years for his master to come back on the train. (Get me a hanky!)

You presumably know all this already, but when you love Anne and all those she loves, you do tend to go on about it a little.

The Lost and the Blind

Declan Burke writes thrillers like he does crime novels, seemingly just taking what’s around him, turning it into the most exciting of novels. Not every author can put him or herself into a book and get away with it. Less still their child, but what’s a thriller without your small girl’s Barbie?

Declan Burke, The Lost and the Blind

In The Lost and the Blind we have the separated Irish journalist Tom, who makes ends meet by reviewing films. Tom is hired by a wealthy American who wants him to ghostwrite a book about the killing of some young children during WWII, something which eventually causes Tom to run for his life in the company of a lovely female; his six-year-old daughter Emily.

Tom is a nice, peace-loving man, but he is no fool. On the other hand, as it’s his turn to have his daughter, and he needs to make sure he is a good dad so he stands a chance of getting custody of Emily, he can’t go off on the usual macho hunts for bad guys. As in some of Declan’s crime novels, I was enjoying reading a thriller which does all the right things, but with rather less bloodshed than you tend to expect.

Although that only works up to a point. Just warning you.

This is an interesting mix of ordinary Irish life from the days of the country’s economic collapse, and flashbacks to WWII in neutral Eire, featuring German soldiers and the IRA, as well as an English spy.

And none of it went in the direction I would have guessed, had I been capable of guessing. Very, very good.

Apache

Well, wow! That’s not all I have to say about Tanya Landman’s Apache (a very long overdue read for me; the details of which I won’t bore you with), but it’s a good start.

Tanya Landman, Apache

I wonder what it is about the 19th century United States that fascinates me so? Tanya is obviously drawn to write about it, and I like reading it. If I say it’s a relic of watching Westerns as a child, I’m probably going to upset someone, but I suspect it is.

Siki is Apache, and an orphan. Aged 14 when the story begins, she has just watched her 4-year-old brother killed by Mexicans, and she swears she will avenge his death. Siki has never been interested in women’s work, and strives to be accepted as a warrior, along with the young males.

Set in Arizona near the Mexican border, life as the Apache have known it is swiftly disappearing. It’s not only the Mexicans who are a threat, but the white settlers arrive in vast numbers, seemingly trampling on all that Siki and her people value.

Tanya mixes Apache daily life and rituals with the thriller that is their quest for revenge for the massacre of mostly women and children. Siki is skilled and brave, and for this she attracts both admiration as well as hate from various members of her tribe.

In one way you could decribe this as a fairly low-key story, were it not for the sheer horror of what happens to the Apache in their own country. And then there is the thrill of the skills they use against their enemies, not to mention the almost-not-there love story. It’s incredibly powerful.

I learned things I didn’t know before but should have, and I was thoroughly entertained by this history lesson. Both sides in this story can be seen to be right – and wrong – at the same time. If you are white, you can see why the white people behaved as they did, even if you feel shame over it. And the Apache are simultaneously both sensitive and seemingly callous, but because you’ve read what has happened to them, you can more than see their point.

Apache is really a very marvellous book. Tanya is hard on her readers, but rightly so.

Monday miscellany

I’d – almost – concluded I have no friends, but before you gallantly cry that I have you, I realised how wrong I was. Today is School Friend’s birthday. (Her 60th, but don’t tell anyone. She looks like 29.) And I’m not there. I suppose that’s what I meant, really. I’m not physically surrounded by friends, but I know they are out there, at various inconvenient distances for birthday parties and the like.

I could have gone. But with a future kitchen having just arrived, sitting in the hall (which has not had book boxes stored in it for maybe as long as a couple of weeks, and was beginning to look almost normal), and a sink that needed to be crowbarred free by Son, now seems an unwise time for me to up and frolic.

I typed ’tile’ instead of ‘time’ and that was most certainly a Freudian slip. I’m not 60, nor do I look like 29, but feel rather like 79 sometimes. The Resident IT Consultant and I went shopping for tiles last week. As we walked towards the entrance to the DIY emporium I halted and nearly asked him what we’d come for. Good thing I didn’t, as he beat me to it by a split second. We managed to remember why we’d come (I did have a list in my bag, but you feel that one item should be possible to keep in your brain and not have it slosh around uncontrollably) and the outing was a relative success. I mean, only the day before, we’d also ventured out for tiles but ended up eyeing raspberry bushes at the local nursery, where we’d gone for coffee, instead.

Speaking of gardens, we made some discoveries in ours. The Grandmother found we had a pond. Well, we knew that. But once the weeds went, we realised we have dependants. One duck. Plastic. An otter. Stone. A tortoise. Also stone. Frog. Real. Frogspawn. Also real, and watched over by the parental frog. And some days later, after all that unexpected light and air, we have ‘watery’ flowers as well.

As I said, Son and Dodo were here, carrying kitchens and liberating sinks. And stuff. Then they had to go home again, partly because Son is off to the London Book Fair this week. (It’s unfair! I still haven’t been. And I had to decline an invitation to Canada House. Again.) You can tell it’s that time of year, by how many publicists are already ‘out of office’ in their emails. (So, basically, I can blog as I like, and I am, as you can see.)

Before he left, Son borrowed the complete set of Martin Beck by Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and Barry Forshaw’s Nordic Noir. Seems he’s going to need the books for some paper or other. (Someone’s been getting their translators wrong…) He asked if we wanted anything from London, and you know, I am sure I was thinking just the other day that there was something. But what?

Thank you, Jackson

Being polite never hurt anyone. That is the lesson for the farmer who owns a donkey called Jackson.

The farmer needs Jackson to walk to market with him, carrying all the food the farmer has to sell. He does so, until the day when he’s had enough and refuses to move, no matter what the farmer says or does.

Niki and Jude Daly, Thank you, Jackson

His wife Beauty sends their son Goodwill after the pair to help. And she has truly brought up a lovely and thoughtful boy, because Goodwill knows what Jackson needs.

He wants his owner to be polite.

‘It’s the little things, like saying please and thank you, that make a big difference in the world.’