Monday, January 12, 2009
Village School by Miss Read
2. Village School - first in the Fairacre series
by Miss Read
paperback, 229 pages
I think Miss Read has a reputation which is not quite accurate. Her books are most always listed in the 'gentle reads' category; and while they are gentle, in that there is no horrific abuse or crime, still they are not bland - oh what a beautiful day and life I'm having sort of book. Fairacre is a lovely little English village, and we may look back at the 1950s with longing for the simplicity, but there is still trouble and sadness among its people. Poor little Joseph Coggs who wants nothing more from his school experience but the wonderful lunch which is served, is denied this because his father says, what's good enough for him (the father) is good enough for Joseph. That 'good enough' is "thick slabs of bread smeared with margarine and an unappetizing hunk of dry cheese." At school that first wondrous day, he ate "cold meat, mashed potatoes, salad, plums, and custard" with third helpings of the last two. As soon as his mother gets a job, the first thing she does is give her son the money for lunch at school. Not a team, these parents. And it gets worse. We learn that the father is a terrible drunk who beats his wife and children. This isn't expounded on in any great detail, but it is spoken in words, not whispers. These things did go on in those days. Joseph explains why he is late to school:
Me dad overdone it, and we was all up late.
It doesn't take much reading between the lines to realize the hell that was within those walls that night.
And then there are the two women - one a newcomer in town, with money and a nice house, and the other a substitute teacher - who share a dream.
'What I should like better than anything,' confessed Mrs Moffet, 'would be to have a dress shop!'
'Me, too!' rejoined Mrs Finch-Edwards, and they looked at each other with a wild surmise. There was a vibrating moment as their thoughts hovered over this mutual ambition.
'If it weren't for the family, and the house, and that,' finished Mrs Moffat, her eyes returning sadly to her seam.
'If it weren't for hubby,' echoed Mrs Finch-Edwards, gazing glumly at a gusset. They sewed in silence.
These two situations are indicative of the times, just as much as a quieter, simpler life. The truth is that all times have their goods and bads. There are no 'good old days' just old days, with their measure of pain and joy, the same as the days we inhabit.
I don't mean to imply that this sort of trouble or discontent is the crux of the book because it certainly isn't. The episodes are mentioned in passing, as another component of the several characters' lives. The book centers around the school life and calendar, which itself follows the church calendar because this is a parish school, attached to the local Anglican church. It is a rich life with harvest festivals, where the children bring fruits and vegetables to decorate the church, and Christmas programs which are attended by the whole community. I found myself thinking, what if a Jewish or Muslim child came to the village? What if a couple adopted a child from South Korea? How would they have been accepted and acclimated into this very safe, yet very closed community.
People often compare the Miss Read books with Jan Karon's Mitford series, and indeed Jan Karon is a fan of Miss Read's work. Their books share that small town life, with its ups and downs, and Jan Karon doesn't gloss over the troubles of life either.
Village School is a lovely, lovely story, introducing us to the town of Fairacre and its inhabitants. But it could also serve history very well as a report, a testimonial to post-War England in the rural towns. There isn't running water in the school. It is heated by a big coal stove which must be tended. There isn't a proper playground. Food is not taken for granted. The teacher lives in a house next to the school, and when she takes a bath:
I switched on the electric copper ready for my bath-water, when I returned. ... The kitchen was comfortably steamy when I put the zinc bath on the floor and pour in buckets of rainwater from the pump. As I lay in the silky brown water...
Good old days, ha!
And yet, there is great happiness. The teacher takes the children on outdoor excursions - not field trips for which permission must be granted and bus rides taken - but honest to goodness walks out into nature. The children learn about things I think are important - flowers, trees, food crops - things I'm quite certain many kids don't know about today.
I think that present day elementary school teachers in particular would so enjoy this book. They would see the many changes which have occurred in the fifty-nine years since it was written, but I think they would also feel at home in the village school. One note that made me smile, as the wife of a teacher:
Jim Bryant had brought the precious envelope containing our cheques; fantastically large ones this time, as they covered both July and August. Such wealth seemed limitless, but I knew from sad experience, how slowly September would drag its penniless length, before the next cheque came again!
There is a chapter called Perplexed Thoughts on Rural Education which voiced concerns still spoken of today such as rural schools closing and becoming consolidated into large regional ones. Miss Read writes of this with much fairness and understands both points of view. She also examines the private/public school issue in the same manner.
There is another chapter which tells of the log books these rural schools have kept since they first began:
The log books thus form a most interesting account of a school's adventures; the early ones are particularly fascinating and should, I sometimes feel, be handed over to the local archivist who would find them a valuable contribution to the affairs of the district.
This is just how I feel about this book. It truly is an historic record of a time and place of a school, told with fictional characters and events, yet very accurate in its portrayal.
Oh, and those women I spoke of above - Miss Read tells us in an unusual little fast forward that they did have their dress-designing business with a team of dressmakers.
I first read the Miss Read books when my kids were little. I had an exercise bike upstairs with a book holder, and I rode many a mile while my head and heart were in the English countryside. They were my 'adult' reading, while the rest of my reading time was spent within the pages of picture books and chapter books. I loved them then and love them today.