Friday, January 12, 2007

Philippa Pearce: Minnow on the Say

It seems I am not alone in preferring Minnow on the Say to Tom's Midnight Garden amongst the works of the late Philippa Pearce.

Daria Donnelly writes:

Philippa Pearce's 1958 Tom's Midnight Garden ... is considered one of the finest novels written for children, "as near as any book I know to being perfect in its construction and writing" according to critic John Rowe Townsend. But I think Pearce's recently republished first novel, Minnow on the Say ... is even better.

Yes, Tom's Midnight Garden is terrific. It tells the story of a boy whose loneliness is both expressed and relieved by nightly play in a sprawling and inhabited late-Victorian garden which, by day, is mere pavement and garbage cans. The nature of time, desire, and memory - Pearce delicately conveys and considers each. And yet...communication technology and style have changed, enough that Tom's means of expression (effusive letters to his beloved brother) slightly estranges today's reader.

Not so Minnow on the Say, with its timeless, if more conventional plot. The story begins in 1930s England when David Moss, the child of a bus driver, finds a lovely, neglected canoe tossed onto his family's dock after a storm swells the river Say. He desperately wants to keep it, but his father urges him to find the owner.

That turns out to be young Adam Codling. He is last in the line of a now-impoverished family that has occupied the banks of the Say for centuries. The only way that the Codling estate might be saved, and Adam not sent to relatives in Manchester, is if he and his new friend David can find the treasure that an ancestor hid during the time of the Spanish Armada. Equipped with a single clue (a four-line poem) and their canoe, the Minnow, the boys spend a summer questing for treasure.

They cover a lot of territory and so does the book: poverty, greed, mourning, class relations, the nature of marriage and of friendship, village ways, and more. Don't read this expecting misty nostalgia. Pearce's love of village and river life shines through (she grew up on the river Cam in the village of Great Shelford), but so does her experience of the London Blitz and the trauma of World War II.

You might never read a more painful account of the ravages of mourning as those scenes in which Adam's grandfather, demented by denial of his only son's death during the Great War, fails to understand that the boy he lives with is his grandson.

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