Just as I was busy planning for my trip to Yorkshire, Litlove posted a review of Gervase Phinn’s The Other Side of the Dales, and I thought it sounded like a great choice for airplane and train reading for my trip. And it was a good, light read, just right for travel. However, I did have some problems with the book that kept me from enjoying it thoroughly. (And I’ll note from the outset that Litlove does warn of these tendencies in her review.)
The Other Side of the Dales tells of Phinn’s first year as a school inspector in the Dales, where the children are more interested in the types of sheep depicted in a book than the actual story being told about the sheep and where they are likely to side with the farmer when reading the tales of Peter Rabbit. The stories are amusing, often very amusing. Phinn clearly feels a great deal of affection for the students and teachers of the Dales.
But, as charmed as I was by this book, something about it makes me uneasy. The stories are a little too charming, too precious. After a while, I got tired of how Phinn kept seeing the people of the Dales as something exotic and strange. Maybe, I thought, he’s really the strange one. And at times he just comes across as a little smug—the all-knowing urban, educated man come to the Dales to share the wisdom of the world and to take the wisdom of the Dales back to the world.
The Dales, as depicted by Phinn, feel like a place unto themselves, not really part of the world, and that doesn’t really feel right to me. I suppose I’m sensitive to any portrayals of country people as disconnected and cut off from the world, being originally from the country myself. (I’m also often frustrated with movies about quirky rural folk.) Country people seem so often in books and films to be depicted as quirky caricatures, and it’s a little wearying to see the same images all the time. That’s not to say there isn’t any variety among the people Phinn encounters; these people aren’t all alike, but they are all othered. It makes me uncomfortable.
Plus, as I read, the stories started to feel less than authentic. The people were just a little too quirky and the anecdotes a little too cute. Eventually, I came across one anecdote that I’d actually heard before this book was even published! Perhaps you’ve heard it: A minister asks students to name something brown with a furry tail that eats nuts, and a child replies that he knows the answer must be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel. This story gets passed around in churches all the time, but never as a true story. Phinn, however, gives it a place and names a child associated with it. So now I’m left feeling that the whole book is just constructed to fit in with our image of the Dales, not to tell a true story of real people.
On reflection, I suppose Phinn’s Dales stories are not unlike Garrison Keillor’s stories of Lake Wobegon, but I think most of Keillor’s readers know Lake Woebegon is a fantasy. Perhaps that’s true of Phinn as well; I’m not familiar enough with his reputation to say. I will say that Keillor doesn’t seem to “other” the subjects of his stories the way Phinn does; he’s writes as if he’s talking about his own people, and so it feels true, even when it’s not.
Despite these reservations, I can’t quite disrecommend this book. It is entertaining; I enjoyed reading it despite the niggling voice in the back of my head. But in the end, the voice must have its say. I wouldn’t want anyone to read this book and assume they’re getting the authentic story. It may have plenty of truth in it, but I think there’s also a heavy dose of artifice as well. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as we all know what we’re getting.