How often do you read a book that makes you smile all the way through? I was given this book at the age of eleven, and many years later I still love it.
Tolly is a seven-year old boy who is going to stay with his great-grandmother. He has not met her before and doesn’t know what to expect. When he arrives at an estate called Green Noah, he finds that his relative lives in a huge mansion (he calls it a castle). Soon after arriving, he finds that the house is inhabited by ghosts.
There is very little that is frightening about this book. The ghosts are children, and Tolly’s distant ancestors, so they just like to play. The book does not really have a plot so much as a sequence of events. In a longer book this might have been a problem, but at a mere 158 pages it scarcely matters, and the reader is too immersed in Boston’s beautifully descriptive prose to worry.
It is important to look at the events as a child does. From the beginning Tolly is depicted as a child with a vivid imagination and a knack for looking at the world a little differently. For example, when he is on the train going to his destination, he is looking out at flood water, and starts to imagine it is the Biblical flood and he is going to the Ark. He imagines the different noises of all the animals and how loud it would be. When he tells his grandmother this she immediately enters into the game of make-believe with him. It’s a moment where you can really believe these two characters are definitely related.
Tolly is remarkably sanguine about situations that might alarm some children, confronting ghosts, for example. I don’t see that as unbelievable in the character, because I formed the impression from this book and its sequels, that the family of Oldknow, to whom Tolly belongs, have something of a unique relationship with the past. While the children are ghosts and aware of their ghost status, there is a scene where Tolly and his Grandmother are present in a past Christmas service at the local church. In another scene a mother sings a baby to sleep many hundreds of years ago, and they can hear this from the next room. The house and environmemt have their own magic, and even the local wildlife has ingrained memory of how things have always been (such as the bird wanting to come into Tolly’s room even though the room hadn’t been used in years).
The book is full of word pictures, that make the whole environment come alive. The house and garden are as much characters in the story as anyone else, and images like this breathe life into the story:
‘Against the side of the house, immensely tall and half-covered with festoons of Old Man’s Beard, was a stone figure. The first thing that attracted his attention to it was, close to the ground, some stone fishes swimming in what looked like stone water, as though the flood had left something behind. Then he saw that behind the fishes were two huge bare stone feet that seemed to be paddling with stone ripples round the ankles; above them, legs and folds of clothing. High above that, so that he had to step back to look up at it, among the twining strings of the creeper he saw the head of a giant stone man, carrying a child on his shoulders.’
This is the statue of St Christopher, which is also an important part of the story. When you read this you can really see him.
I often re-read this book at this time of the year because it takes place at Christmas, and is very tied up with Christmas traditions and the Christmas spirit. It is at Christmas that Linnet in the past sees the St Christopher statue move from his place and carry the singing Christ-child to church. Later the children know to call on St Christopher when in trouble. Tolly’s loving and open nature leads him to ask if a gift can be given to the ghosts, and that they have a ‘party’ for the birds and other wildlife. I loved the part where they were decorating the tree:
‘there were glass balls, stars, fir-cones, acorns and bells in all colours and all sizes. There were also silver medallions of angels. Of course the most beautiful star was fixed at the very top, with gold and silver suns and stars beneath and around it. Each glass treasure, as light as an eggshell and as brittle, was hung on a loop of black cotton that had to be coaxed over the prickly fingers of the tree. Tolly took them carefully out of their tissue paper and Mrs Oldknow hung them up. The tiny glass bell-clappers tinkled when a branch was touched. When it was all finished, there were no lights on the tree itself, but the candles in the room were reflected in each glass bauble on it, and seemed in those soft deep colours to be shining from an immense distance away, as if the tree were a cloudy night full of stars.’
This is a lovely little book, suitable for children and adults. I wholeheartedly recommend it.