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Newcomers to a village like Thrush Green always attract attention, and when the newcomers are an apparently single woman and a little boy, curtains are twitching and tongues are wagging. However, when Phil (Phyllida) Prior and son Jeremy settle into their new home, the villagers are all welcoming, particularly Winne Bailey, the doctor's wife, and Harold Shoosmith, widower of the parish. But Phil has a background and is rather mysterious about it. When the villagers find out, it is not long before they show Phil their support, enabling her to begin a new life and career, which she particularly values when tragedy strikes. Will she settle down with Harold, who is so much older? Or are there other men on the horizon willing to take on a woman and her child?
As a child, I came to love the Miss Read books, set in the countryside somewhere in the south of England. While living abroad, I came to appreciate them even more; they are so quintessentially English, telling stories of ordinary people, many very like the people I had left behind in my own small home town. Miss Read (real name Dora Saint), a schoolteacher and author in her spare time, wrote two main series of books - the Thrush Green ones, which tell the stories of village life from different villagers points of view, and the Fairacre novels, which are told through the eyes of a local schoolteacher. She is still alive, but no longer writing as far as I am aware - the majority of her books were written between 1955 and 1995.
Although this particular book centres around Phil Prior, it is really just an excuse to bring forward all the old and loved characters and show how they behave towards a newcomer. Winnie Bailey is an important character, a childless woman who has a lot of love to give to waifs and strays like Phil, and she does indeed provide a shoulder for Phil to cry on. Harold Shoosmith is a rather pedantic man who is surprised by his sudden feelings for Phil, but is nevertheless willing to do all he can to smooth her way. Both really come to the fore in this novel and show what they are really made of, increasing my fondness for them as people. Phil herself also seems to be a welcome addition to the village as a character, bringing a sense of much needed normality.
Well portrayed though Winnie and Harold are, Miss Read's real talent comes to the fore when she is describing the more unusual members of the village. My particular favourite has to be Dotty Harmer, a spinster who loves animals more than people, and who strongly believes that the villagers' health can be maintained by regular doses of her herbal potions, which usually have scary results, known as 'Dotty's collywobbles'. She is a real character, much loved by the others despite her odd habits, and reminds me so much of someone I used to know that it makes me smile every time she appears on the page. Then there is Ella Bembridge, another spinster, forthright in her views about everything, whether she has any knowledge of it or not. And Albert Piggot, a curmudgeonly old man whose blowsy wife has just about had enough of his miserableness.
What makes Miss Read so special to me is her ability to make each character highly original, yet totally convincing, then maintaining this originality through all the books. Some of the characters are slighly annoying in their views - feeling that they have the right to speak forth on all manner of subjects - but this is exactly how people in villages are - at least they are in the small town I grew up in. I often go and sit in my mum's cafe and just listen to all the gossip - it could have come straight out of this book. And for this strength in characterisation alone, Miss Read deserves to be much better known than she is. Her schoolteacher background gives her an amazing insight into children too, so we are treated to some marvellous conversations straight out of children's mouths.
As a story-teller, Miss Read is also accomplished. This book is a particularly good one in that we are immediately drawn into the intrigue about Phil Prior and why she has no husband accompanying her. This desire to know more about her life is really compelling, and I found myself reading 'just one more chapter' late into the night so that I could find out what was going to happen. And just as I thought we had found out the truth, something else would happen to throw the cat among the pigeons again. This is quite unusual in that most of Miss Read's stories are a bit more ordinary, but it certainly didn't do the book any harm.
The style of writing is very clear and easy to read - I first starting reading these books when I was about 8, which I think is a sign of how straightforwardly Miss Read writes. It is not, however, overly simplistic, it is just that she says what she needs to say and no more, and yet she manages to pack a lot of visual imagery into her words. This makes for very relaxing reading - perfect, I think, for taking on holiday and reading by the pool, because no real effort is needed to take in what she is trying to say. This fits in perfectly with the countryside setting and general laid-back feeling to the story.
If I have to criticise the book at all, it is that it is very white middle class in attitudes. Certainly the more intelligent, wealthier villagers are highly respected, whereas the more working class villagers are expected to tag along behind - that is, if they aren't criminals like Sam Curdle. However, I think it is important to remember that the book was published back in 1970 when life was quite different from the multicultural society we have nowadays, so it is just reflecting the situation at the time. I can imagine that some would find it quite hard to fathom though.
I really cannot imagine many men liking this book; it is very much for the girls, and probably for older ones at that - I can't really imagine today's teenagers enjoying it, unless they have a penchant for finding out how their mothers and grandmothers may have lived. However, if you like a well-told story with vivid characters and don't have to have a modern background to it, then you may just enjoy this. It is pure relaxation, and a reminder of a time when life was a lot slower and gentler. Highly recommended.
The book is available from Amazon for £6.64. Published by Orion, it has 192 pages. ISBN: 0752877534