Connections are very special. There is a particular pleasure in joining things up. It is an urge, perhaps even a need. Sometimes the more disparate the elements appear to be, the greater our thrill in feeling we have linked them. This applies to geography, to history and indeed to people, not least, of course, when the connections are with our own selves. We seem to need to spin a web, the threads of which fan out from our centre and tie us to other times, other places, other people. It makes us feel a part of something larger than ourselves, this moment. When we visit distant countries we bring back souvenirs so that we retain a physical link with them. On a more casual level, out walking, we pick up a pebble from a beach or a acorn from a wood and leave it long on our desk or mantlepiece. It links us and our memory, our imagination, to another place, another time. It can be even more potent to hold some ancient object, a fossil amonite, a faience ushabti, a flint axe head, and feel connected to times so long ago. More rewarding still can be to discover an old photograph or marriage certificate from a distant ancestor of our very own. Connections.
For some time now, I have been developing an enormous admiration for the novels of Kate Milford, growing ever closer to the opinion that she is one of our most important, and wonderful, contemporary writers for children. This response grows exponentially with each book of hers I read. More than anything this is pure delight in the connections that exist between each and all of them. Each emerges as another facet of a truly enchanting world, created with the most original and fertile imagination. Her novels are not a sequence in the sense of the Harry Potter or Septimus Heap books. In fact they are not only each freestanding stories, set in different periods in history, but each has a very distinct and different 'feel'. They belong, almost, to different genres, or at least to different sub-genres. Yet there are links between each of them, sometimes strong and clear, sometimes subtle or almost covert - and it gives a reader the most wonderful thrills to discover them. Sometimes the same character may appear at a different age, or the same place at a different time. Sometimes we meet ancestors or descendants of characters we already know. Sometimes the books are linked by stories; what in one is recounted or read as folklore, in another is lived out as 'reality'. Central to this world, though only peripherally featuring in some books, are enigmatic 'roamers', characters who seem able to travel along magical roads through place and time. Roads and crossroads. Places. Times. People. Stories. Reality. Roamers. In her rich and complex creations Kate Milford conjures a kind of hinterland, a cusp, between history, folklore and fantasy which is very potent. Discovering her world, exploring its connections, building its picture piecemeal, is truly thrilling. I know of no other children's books that do this in quite the same way.
However, the fact that all the books interconnect does not prevent each from being a fascinating and engaging read in its own right. I have saved up reading Greenglass House for a Christmas treat and that proved to be a very good decision indeed. The only drawback, perhaps, is that if I had read it when I first bought it, a few weeks ago, it would most certainly have been included in my books of the year, alongside The Left-Handed Fate. (See previous post.) Although first published in handsome hardback in 2014, the paperback has only just come out, so I would have counted it for 2016. Although Greenglass House was written before The Left-Handed Fate, the books are not sequential as such, so my reading reversal was no drawback. In fact Greenglass House far post-dates the subsequent book in terms of its time setting.
The Left-Handed Fate is, at least in part, a quite brilliant younger-readers version of something akin to Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels. The Greenglass House fits rather more comfortably into a familiar sub-genre of American children's literature, treating, in its simplest terms, with children using clues to solve a mystery In this it is related to such classics as The Westing Game, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler and, more recently, The Mysterious Benedict Society. However it is very much it's own book, with many wonderful, original and highly engaging qualities.
Milo lives in a eccentric 'smugglers' inn, the titular Greenglass House in Nagspeake, run by his adoptive parents. All is quiet there in the run up to Christmas and Milo is looking forward to the holidays when a number of enigmatic guest arrive quite unexpectedly. Just as Kate Milford's different books are scattered so cleverly with interconnections, this book is in itself about connections, or rather about the discovering of them. What connects Greenglass House with its past, and how are each of the strange visitors connected to the house? In short why are they there? That is the mystery that Milo and his friend Meddy have to solve.
One of the many joys of the book is the subtlety of its fantasy. For the most part the characters and actions of Greenglass House seem grounded in realism, at least in the book's own terms. And yet elements of their world's folkloric story find their way into concrete reality, and their reality feeds intriguingly back into the realm of story. The concrete and the imagined impinge on each other mysteriously. One might even say they interact. They certainly interconnect. Milo and Meddy take on roles from fantasy gaming, and almost become their gaming characters. Sometimes we are led to question whether they are indeed just imagining. And then, towards the end of the novel, the narrative tips more fully into fantasy. We are brought up again against the realisation that this is not the 'ordinary' world; it is the world of the 'Roamers' after all. These shades and shifts of focus are quite beautifully handled in what is a most skilfully realised piece of fiction.
Amongst many other finely drawn, and often amusing characters, it is Greenglass House itself which is in many ways the star of the story. It is vividly conjured in such way that as a reader you experience for yourself its intimate mixture of warmth and quirkiness. How wonderful it would be to spend Christmas there, to ride the clanking funicular up from the bay, to climb the quirky stairs to its many floors, to bathe in the light of its magical stained glass windows. To those who already know Nagspeak in more detail from other books, this inn fits perfectly. To those who don't, it it a perfect introduction to a truly amazing place.
Moreover, the fact that the story is essentially rather domestic in scale does not stop it from grasping and holding the reader in its narrative thrall. The climax of the piece, when the identity of the 'villain' amongst the guests is finally discovered, is as thrilling as anyone could wish. And the twist in the tale towards the end (yes, there is a huge one, but I am certainly not saying what) is just as jaw-dropping for the reader as it is for the characters. Kate Milford has lead up to it so, so cleverly. It is one of those revelations that, once in the know, you look back and think you should have suspected all along- but you didn't.
It was not only the Christmas setting that made this such a heart-warming seasonal read (although of course it would still be brilliant at any time). It is the refreshing fact that Milo is the epitome of 'Friday's child', loving and giving. So many child protagonists in contemporary fiction are traumatised, or hard done to by life, and it is of course important for literature to explore children's issues and difficulties. Yet even though Milo is an orphan, and understandably sometimes muses about the identity of his birth family, he is clearly in a stable, secure relationship in his adoptive family, loving and loved. We know that not all children are so lucky, but, thankfully, many are. It is wonderful to find a book celebrating this aspect life too. Milo so often gives away what he has found in order to to make others happy. He can do so because he already has the love he needs. He s a wonderful and important model.
Whilst the story of Greenglass House itself has been resolved by the end of the book, many intriguing story elements have been the introduced but not fully explained. I so hope that in future books there will be more to illucidate intrigues such as the secret underground railway, Georgie the Eye, and 'The Raconteur's Commonplace Book'. I suspect there might. Yet again I would want to call strongly for UK publication of Kate Milford's masterly books so that we can buy them in real, independent bookshops, and not be reduced to patronising internet conglomerates. Strongly 'American' they may seem, but they are actually universal books with a satisfyingly rich geographic and cultural background and as such deserve the widest possible worldwide audience.
Kate Millard, (I know you are out there somewhere. The 'Roamers' World' links even to Digital Media Land.) I love the contribution you are making to the canon of children's literature. It is huge and truly wondrous. You connect us all to places that are real and imaginary, or both. You connect us to the past and perhaps our future too. You connect us to folklore, to ethnicity, culture and heritage (our own and others'), to story, to magic - and to the greatest magic of all, imagination. You connect us to ourselves, and to each other. Keep filling the note books. Keep finishing the novels. And, please, don't let even Border Saints and Greensward drift off into utter disconnection. Hook them in somehow. Even one small cross-reference would satisfy your so admiring readers and thrill us with joy of connectivity.