The River at Green Knowe
by Lucy M Boston,
illustrated by Peter Boston.
Odyssey / Harcourt Young Classics 2002 (1959)
A prosaic reader might say this is a story about three children who spend an idyllic summer at a mansion in Cambridgeshire mostly messing about on the river, and in this they wouldn’t be wrong. But this is no ordinary mansion, these are no ordinary children, and this is no ordinary river: this is Green Knowe, and these are children alive to imaginative possibilities, and this is a river where those possibilities can come true.
Mrs Oldknow, who owns the ancient Manor House of Green Knowe, has let it out for the summer to the distinguished archaeologist Dr Maud Biggin and her friend, the homely Miss Sybilla Bun. Dr Biggin promptly decides to invite her great-niece Ida and two refugee boys called Oskar and Hsu to stay for the holidays.
Ida (11), affectionately called Midget, along with Oskar Stanislawsky from Poland (also 11) and Hsu, known as Ping, who’s from China, happily get on well together and, left to their own devices, get on with enjoying lazy days and stealthy nights exploring and mapping the river. This being Green Knowe the trio soon find there is unexpected natural magic around every corner.
First let’s focus on the adults. Maud Biggin is trying to complete her paper, A Reconstruction of the Habits and Diet of the Ogru: a Summary of Recent Discoveries, and typifies those who favour intellect over instinct. Sybilla Bun however thinks the route to happiness is through food and is therefore concerned with ensuring young bodies are well-, even over-nourished. But, as Oskar observes, “What you don’t notice isn’t there”: both grown-ups, however well-intentioned, are largely unaware of what the children need, and take no real interest in what consumes their waking hours — in fact the pair seem remarkably unobservant of present matters, only of the past:
Ping sighed. “I can’t understand — when it’s the thing [grown-ups] want most in the world and it’s there before their eyes — why they won’t see it.”
“They are often like that,” said Oskar wisely. “They don’t like now. If it’s really interesting, it has to be then.”
What do the children need? The leisure to appreciate what’s in front of and around them in the now time. There’s the natural world — things like swallows weaving through the sky and ‘cutting figures of eight at ground level’, or the telltale signs of imminent flooding:
On windy days the surface of the river is raised in little pyramids streaked like the crisscross fork pattern on mashed potatoes.
From their canoe they see bywaters where a decaying mansion houses owls and a simple structure shelters a hermit; they discern a living being in a fallen tree and a herd of horses which might take flight at any moment; when they steal out at night they witness a prehistoric dance in the shadows cast by a full moon.
Seen from the punt, the world was a symmetrical but unfamiliar pattern of bulky blacknesses jutting into quicksilver. The daylight line between reality and reflection was gone.
Lucy Boston wrote with the imaginative curiosity of a child and the sensitivity of a poet, as the alliteration and imagery conjured up by the previous passage make crystal clear. By shifting from the house and garden explored in The Children of Green Knowe to the surrounding countryside she allows us readers to share in the real delights of boating on the River Great Ouse, paddling past Hemingford Grey and through locks, under bridges, around islands, down the stream which eventually spills into the distant Wash. There are echoes, conscious or not, of The Wind in the Willows, of Grendel and his mother in the fens, and of many other literary riparian explorations, but this novel is of itself.
‘The course of the river that they knew so well was as mysterious as a foreign language.’ Similarly Boston’s writing is alive with mirrored reflections, alert to secrets and aware of eyes with which to see them. The trio draw a map of the river, marking the locks and the bridges, Flying Horse Island and Hermit Island, Owl Palace Island and the Island of the Throning Moon; like the Wonderland Alice drifting down another river they experience being both miniscule as a field mouse and dwarfed by their friends, and also awed by true giants. Above all they observe the strange behaviours of some adults, their ambiguous attitudes to those with differences — people like circus performers — and their indifference to displaced persons such as refugees:
“You don’t understand,” said Ping. “They don’t send displaced persons home. They put them in camps. They might even put them in the zoo.”
It’s that mix of awe and compassion that comes through so strongly in these pages, along with friendship of the type enjoyed by the children. The story’s punctuated by sharp images — a message in a bottle, an antlered shaman, an owl emerging from shadow; and by repetitive sounds — natural noises, or the susurration of seeds or bones on a necklace, the jangle of sistra or rattling of teeth; and, once, a moment when a great secret is vouchsafed to the children:
They were standing at midnight, alone, under a sky that was there before either earth or moon had been and would be there long after. In this agonising second of revelation that ALL passes, the bark of a disturbed heron caused them to clutch each other, and jerked loose their tongues.
Because of this author’s words we can live — if all too briefly — in an endless now, become as little children, and enter a kind of heaven.
‘Magic of the House’, a BBC documentary from 1983 with Lucy Boston and Frank Delaney about the house in the Green Knowe books.