Friday, March 7, 2014

How Green Was My Valley

How Green Was My Valley
Richard Llewellyn
4 / 5

Published 1939

First Sentence
"I am going to pack my two shirts with my other socks and my best suit in the little blue cloth my mother used to tie round her hair when she did the house, and I am going from the Valley."
Publisher's Description:
Huw Morgan, about to leave home forever, reminisces about the golden days of his youth, when South Wales still prospered and coal dust had not yet blackened the valley. Llewellyn's characters fight, love, laugh, and cry, creating an indelible portrait of a people.
Dear Reader,

This was a beautiful little Welsh story of love (for family and for homeland), and propriety, and loss.  Among many other things.  It's hard to enumerate all of the emotions that sweep through one while reading this book, the story of the formative years of Huw Morgan, son and brother of South Wales coal miners.  I read the audiobook of this, and at first it was difficult to get into the rhythm and choice of the words, but once I did, it became as a comforting and familiar song.  Llewellyn's descriptions of certain small moments of life are delicious, as exemplified in this wonderful passage about Huw's first kiss:
"There is strange, and yet not strange, is the kiss.  It is strange because it mixes silliness with tragedy, and yet not strange because there is good reason for it.  There is shaking by the hand.  That should be enough.  Yet a shaking of the hands is not enough to give a vent to all kinds of feeling.  The hand is too hard and too used to doing all things, with too little feeling and too far from the organs of taste and smell, and far from the brain, and the length of an arm from the heart.  To rub a nose like the blacks, that we think is so silly, is better, but there is nothing good to the taste about the nose, only a piece of old bone pushing out of the face, and a nuisance in winter, but a friend before meals and in a garden, indeed.  With the eyes we can do nothing, for if we come too near, they go crossed and everything comes twice to the sight without good from one or the other. 
There is nothing to be done with the ear, so back we come to the mouth, and we kiss with the mouth because it is part of the head and of the organs of taste and smell.  It is temple of the voice, keeper of breath and its giving out, treasurer of tastes and succulences, and home of the noble tongue.  And its portals are firm, yet soft, with a warmth, of a ripeness, unlike the rest of the face, rosy, and in women with a crinkling red tenderness, to the taste not in compare with the wild strawberry, yet if the taste of kisses went, and strawberries came the year round, half of joy would be gone from the world."
You'll notice the odd cadence and play of the words -- this must have been the dialect which the Welsh used at the time; I'm not sure if it is still in use today?  My one solid conclusion from this book has been that Yoda must have been Welsh, because goodness - they do so love to switch their sentences around!  Haha.  But, to be serious, it's a beautiful melody to listen to.  The reader of the book - who I thought I disliked, having heard him also read Kipling's Kim - was a perfect choice for Huw Morgan's memoirs.  Listening to this recording recalled to me what listening to a Shakespeare play is like, with the iambic pentameter emphasized into a sort of song.

But, enough about the beautiful writing style - what of the plot itself?  Well, being a strong union supporter, I found it fascinating to watch the first stirrings of this political movement when the coal operations began to pay their workers less than living wages.  The Morgan family stands divided over the idea of unionizing, and I loved watching the back-and-forth discussion of the issues as they weighed the pros and cons of the movement.

Other of my favorite parts were those which followed Huw's entry into school and into the world of schoolyard fighting.   His pride in his heritage was the cause of a lot of his scrapes, so it was interesting also to watch how people reacted to his engaging in fights, based on their own pride or fear.

One cautionary side note which I must make because it affected my own reading of the book: DO NOT check out Wikipedia articles trying to familiarize yourself with a story (in my case, I wanted to know where it took place, as I lacked any background on the book and had no book cover to refer to).  I ended up inadvertently learning of quite a big plot point (in the first paragraph of the article!) which wasn't revealed until quite a ways into the book, and when it did come, I was hardly shocked (I had spent most of the book waiting for it to happen, wondering when it would).  I need to take this advice to heart not only for this book, but for all of them!  It can be quite a danger.  Not that I have a good alternate suggestion; Wikipedia can be a great resource for more fully understanding a book. can also be dangerous!!

All in all, a very enjoyable story, which did come as somewhat of a surprise, especially after I finished the book: there wasn't all that much to it plot-wise, it was just a wonderful narrative of a young life and (for me) exposure to a new place.  I understand why it is considered a timeless classic, though - and this despite quite a bit of controversy over the author's source material (he first claimed the book was based on his own life, but it was revealed he had never lived in Wales, nor spent time in mines, and that he had simply interviewed quite a few people who did).  No matter to me, though - it was still such a beautiful story, heart-wrenching when you think of how green Huw's valley originally was during his idyllic youth, and how black it had become from the strip mining that eventually took over the verdant lands.  Such a perfect metaphor.

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