It’s rare, though not vanishingly rare, to find an author who writes equally well for adults and children. Usually the writer’s strength is in one domain or the other. But Elizabeth Goudge, one of my very favorite authors, has marvelous books like The Bird in the Tree, The Dean’s Watch, and The Heart of the Family for adults, and utterly enchanting books like Linnets and Valerians for children.
When the book opens in the year 1912, the four Linnet children, Nan, Robert, Timothy, and Betsy (and their dog Absolom) are all locked in separate rooms, being punished by their stern grandmother. They can bear it no longer, and their daring escape over the garden wall leads them by fortunate chance to the home of their own uncle Ambrose, who is also stern, but deeply loving as well. He lives with Ezra, a man-of-all-work; Hector, an owl; and Jason, a shaggy pony, in a house, a garden, and a village that Goudge creates to be infinitely satisfying to a child’s heart. It is a whole world to explore, sometimes frightening, sometimes beautiful, sometimes mysterious and enchanting.
It’s not long before the children are caught up in the tragedy at the heart of village life: the disappearance of young Francis Valerian, eight years old. His mother, Lady Alicia, has hidden herself away as a recluse ever since. Her bitterness and sorrow, and the malice of the shopkeeper Emma Cobley, keep this book from being sentimental or silly; there’s an edge of danger and realism even to the moments of tenderness. Elizabeth Goudge has the great gift, rare among modern writers, of portraying goodness without making it sappy, and evil without making it attractive. As the Linnet children find their way to bringing good out of evil, the pure satisfaction and joy in the book makes every moment a pleasure.
I read this book over and over again when I spent a year in England, and then was never able to find it again. I was slightly worried I wasn’t going to like it as much as an adult. I needn’t have worried. This reprint by Penguin, is well worth seeking out, and reading, and re-reading, and giving to others as often as possible.