Rereading: The GREEN KNOWE Novels by L. M. Boston

I’ve already posted reviews of the first two in this fine series published from 1954 to 1976, one of my favorites in the historical fantasy genre, and as a way of catching up on what I’ve read recently, I’m repeating those two along with reviews of the other four novels so I can cover the entire run. There are also a few short books for younger readers, which are great as well, but they don’t add anything much to the story as a whole, so won’t be covered here. The setting is an actual ancient manor house in Hemingford Grey, near Cambridge, England, where Boston and her son lived for many years.

As the first book opens we follow a young boy, Tolly, as he makes his way alone through England to visit a great-grandmother he doesn’t know in a very old house he’s never seen. He begins on a train splashing through sodden countryside in torrential rain that has everything flooded. Dropped off at a small station, the worried boy is met by a taxi hired to take him to the house, but the taxi can only go so far because of the flooding. All looks bleak until a boat appears rowed by Boggis, the groundskeeper, who brings the boy safely to the front door of the ancient stone house, where his great-grandmother is waiting with a comforting dinner and warm greeting. Mrs. Oldknow is not much larger than Tolly, and they get on famously. She shows him around the manor, which is full of wonders for a young boy, with a music room that looks like a knight’s dining hall and a bedroom for him under the roof eaves full of ancient family toys. It certainly seems like a place where interesting things can happen, and when Tolly asks his grandmother if they ever do, she replies, “Oh, yes.”

As Tolly will soon find out, the house, which has been in his family for hundreds of years, has other inhabitants. Children that lived there long ago and died of the plague, but whose spirits remain to fill the house and garden with their mischievous presence, their animal pets, and their teasing laughter. These are not ghosts to be afraid of for Tolly, they are playmates he wants desperately to meet and know better. And as Mrs. Oldknow can see them as well, she tells Tolly stories about the children in their own time, while Tolly gradually sees more and more of them in the present.

It’s just before Christmas, and throughout the book preparations are being made. Then there’s Boggis, the groundskeeper, who has more stories for Tolly, and the many secret features and treasures of the house and garden to explore. But there’s a shadow lying over the place, a spell cast by a gypsy ages ago that centers on a huge yew tree once trimmed into the shape of a Green Noah, now shunned and shaggy, but somehow very dangerous, as Tolly will find out. L.M. Boston’s writing is superb, magical itself, as she conjures up one evocative moment after another in this fine book, illustrated by her son Peter Boston, who did the same for the entire series.

In the second book, Tolly has again come to stay at the manor house with his Grandmother Oldknow, this time for the Easter holidays, an exciting prospect after the adventures of the previous Christmas holidays, where he met some of the ghost children that remain tied to the house. In these holidays, a different group of ghosts gradually make themselves known to Tolly, from a different time in the house’s history. They are from the time of Captain OldKnow, who owned the house in the late 1700s, though he was often away at sea. His daughter, Susan, was born blind, and she’s one of the spirits that Tolly meets, learning about her life and times through stories told by his great grandmother over the patchwork quilt she’s making in the evenings. The Captain’s wife and older son Sefton are in charge of the household when he is away on long sea voyages, and Susan’s life is often miserable, as she isn’t allowed to do or even touch anything, and is considered a helpless cripple by her family, except for her father. When the Captain is home, he encourages Susan to learn as much as she can, and to help her, he brings back from the West Indies a young black boy to be her personal helper. Jacob is unlettered, but also eager to learn, and the two of them are given lessons by a family friend. Everyone but the Captain think this is a waste of time, especially the head servant Caxton. He is a man with great ambition, and he’s drawn Sefton into shady activities and debt which he hopes will someday make him the owner of the house. 

The Captain’s trading voyages make him prosperous, and his wife is showered with rich gifts, including jewelry. Despite that, she and Sefton laugh at him behind his back as they keep busy attending society events and spending the Captain’s money frivolously. In time, though he is treated badly by everyone in the house but Susan and her tutor, Jacob learns much about the devious plans of Caxton, and does what he can to thwart them. Tolly is able to see and speak with Susan a few times, and even becomes a part of her own story. That story reaches a climax when the manor house catches fire and burns, while Susan is forgotten inside by everyone but Jacob. The treasure of the title is a real one hidden by Caxton before the fire, and lost for hundreds of years. Will Tolly find it? A fine story and an exciting plot make this a great read. Boston’s characters spring to life, and her writing is excellent.

This book has the same setting but different characters. Mrs. Oldknow has gone off on a trip with Tolly for the summer and rented her manor house to two older women, Dr. Maud Biggin, doing research on ancient inhabitants of Britain and her friend and cook Miss Sybilla Bun. When the two discover what a strange and wonderful place their rental is, they decide they need to share it with some children. They invite Dr. Maud’s granddaughter Ida to join them and also take in two refugee children, a boy, Ping, from Asia, and another boy, Oskar, from eastern Europe. These three children are given complete freedom to enjoy the house and surrounding area on their own as long as they show up for meals and don’t bother Dr. Maud’s research.

Soon the children have become friends, and they discover a canoe they can use to explore the river that runs past Green Knowe, and also around it in a moat. Their adventures often take place early in the morning before tourists and others are on the water, and those adventures are sometimes magical and always interesting. They decide to explore some of the many small islands in the river, and discover an ancient helmet, a long abandoned house hidden by trees, and a hermit who was once a bus driver, and who has been living secretly on his island, unknown to all. Then there are the magical encounters with flying horses, a real giant, and more. The children are sure Dr. Maud would be thrilled to know about the giant, as it’s right in her line of research, but when they leave her a clue, things don’t work out so well. As always, the writing is wonderful.

This may be the most meaningful book in the series, a story about how man treats wild animals with cruelty to make a profit, and it won the prestigious Carnegie Medal in 1961, but it’s also my least favorite because it’s so sad.

The book begins in Africa, where we follow a family of gorillas in their native habitat, getting to know a young gorilla and his parents as they navigate the dangers and rewards of their lives. Then they become the targets of hunters trying to capture wild animals for zoos. The gorillas try to escape, but eventually young Hanno’s parents are killed, and he is shipped off to a zoo in London, where he is terribly unhappy. Ping, the Asian refugee from the previous book, meets Hanno at the zoo and they make some kind of connection that Ping doesn’t quite understand.

Ping is in a refugee school, and would love to return to Green Knowe for his holidays. He writes to Mrs. Oldknow about his adventures there, and she is touched and invites him to stay with her. Ping is thrilled, and they soon become friends. Meanwhile, Hanno escapes from the zoo, and after eluding a massive pursuit, makes his way by coincidence to a bamboo jungle on the grounds of Green Knowe. There he and Ping become reacquainted, and though it’s scary for Ping, he wants to help the gorilla, whose story is in all the newspapers. Hanno accepts Ping’s help in his own way, but how long he can survive in the bamboo patch is what worries Ping the most. Eventually he must get help from Mrs. Oldknow to protect Hanno, but will it be enough?

The series returns to Tolly and his grandmother at Green Knowe with this book, but Ping is also there too, and he and Tolly are now friends and have adventures together. Mrs. Oldknow tells them stories about a time in the past when Green Knowe was the home of Dr. Vogel, a man doing research into witchcraft and ancient books of magic until he came to a bad end. Soon the boys and Mrs. Oldknow meet Melanie Powers, a present day researcher into the same subject, who is obsessed with finding an ancient book about magic once owned by Dr. Vogel which she thinks must still be somewhere in the manor house. Though Mrs. Oldknow denies it, Melanie continues to harass them, renting the house next door, and constantly appearing when they don’t want her. Tolly and Ping discover that she is a witch herself, and there’s no doubt about her evil intentions, as she begins to send a series of plagues to Green Knowe. How can the boys and an old woman protect themselves from such insidious evil? Maybe the house itself has some answers.

The final book of the series was written after a long pause of years, but it’s one of the best, as it takes us back to the building of the manor house in 1120 A.D. We meet Roger, son of the landowner, who is overseeing the building of their fine new home next to a much smaller and simpler one. Roger enjoys meeting all the workmen, each with their special tasks, and also enjoys their many stories. One is about some ancient standing stones across the river that are said to have strange power, which the workmen are happy to stay away from, but Roger is intrigued, and goes out on his horse to find them. When he does, he discovers the stones do have an amazing power to bring him into the future, where he meets children from the other books, in their own times, and some of those children also come to his time. In this way, many of the characters and storylines are woven together in a satisfying way, and there are new mysteries that can only be solved by Roger using the magic stones.

I love this entire series and recommend it highly. The writing is a joy, the characters are memorable and appealing, and the setting is perhaps the best of any fantasy series because it’s real. My wife Ellen and I were able to visit the Manor around 2001, and I’ll never forget the tour of the house and grounds. You can still do so today.

Green Knowe series

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