Julia Green chooses a brave and unusual story.
As a child, I read and loved all the books by Lucy Boston. I longed to live in an ancient house like Green Knowe, with its mysterious garden and exciting river and the children who come and go. As an adult, I visited the Manor house at Hemingford Grey, the inspiration for Green Knowe, and fell in love with it all over again. I’ve re-read Lucy Boston’s stories and marvel at the way she wrote so powerfully about the natural world and about children: ‘to them, nothing is ordinary.’
A Stranger at Green Knowe begins not at the house but in the tropical rain forest in the Congo. ‘Imagine a tropical forest so vast…’ We experience the loving, protective family of gorillas and the wild beauty of the forest through the perspective of the baby gorilla, and so we feel acutely the terror and devastation when his parents are shot and he and his sister are captured and caged. Hanno, as he comes to be called, is exiled from his Eden forever. ‘He sat with his face pressed to the wire listening and longing, but he never heard his own language again or smelled the comfortable family aura. Such loneliness was not to be endured.’
In Part 2, Hanno is older, living in a tiny cage at London Zoo. He is visited by Ping, an orphan refugee, also an exile far from his forest home. Ping is changed forever by this encounter: ‘The world contained something so wonderful to him that everything was altered.’ Boston moves her story along at great pace, and audaciously, too – cutting to where she needs to go next without lengthy explanation. In Part 3, Ping is staying at Green Knowe for the summer, Hanno has escaped from the zoo, and they meet again, deep in the bamboo thicket in the grounds of the house. What follows is beautifully and dramatically described. Events unfold to their inevitable and tragic conclusion, but there’s hope for Ping’s future, if not for Hanno’s. This brave and unusual story was first published in 1961; it won the Carnegie Medal. And it still has huge imaginative and emotional power, enhanced by Peter Boston’s beautiful, delicate illustrations. A book like this stays with its readers forever.
Julia Green is the author of more than twenty novels and short stories for young people, including Carnegie-nominated To the Edge of the World and The House of Light. Her new book The Children of Swallow Fell is published by Oxford University Press.
A Stranger at Green Knowe by Lucy Boston, illustrated by Peter Boston, is published by Oldknow Books, 978-0952323341, £5.99 pbk.