Jane Langton, The Fledgling (1980)
Although I read and enjoyed the first three books in Jane Langton’s “Hall Family Chronicles” as a child, I never ventured further for some reason. So when I saw book four, The Fledgling, on the Phoenix Award list, I wanted to finally catch up with it.
Like the first three books, this is a gently whimsical fantasy inspired by the setting of Concord, Massachusetts, and by its most famous inhabitants, the transcendentalist writers of the 19th century and their associates. Eleanor and Edward Hall, whose adventures occupied the first books, are still here, but the main protagonist now is Georgie, their young step-cousin.
Georgie is disturbing her family with her desperate wish to fly, which causes her to take unwise leaps and sometimes to bruise herself on the stairs. As she negotiates the difficult threshold between reality and imagination, childhood and growing up, Georgie finds a magnificent guide in the “Goose Prince,” a Canada goose who is visiting Walden Pond as his flock flies south for the winter. This noble bird shows Georgie how to truly fly, and in the process gives her a most precious gift, one that will survive her transition into the seemingly ordinary, adult world.
Thoreau is obviously the main guiding genius here, with the Walden location and references to his rapport with the natural world. (Interestingly enough, the main passage quoted from his work is about the joys of hunting — a pursuit that is not looked on very favorably by the book’s characters!) The lyrical passages about Georgie’s night flights will have young readers (and even some older ones) longing for a Goose Prince of their own. Providing comic relief are the villains who also appeared in the first books, Mr. Preek and Miss Prawn, who add a dose of silliness to the more serious themes.
I found it a bit of an unwieldy mix of philosophy and fable and satire, and sometimes the transitions were jarring, but to me it was worth reading for some passages of beautiful writing that captured how from a child’s point of view the world is full of wonder and mystery:
“It was because people had thick smooth outsides like the walls of houses. When you walked past houses in the street, you couldn’t see the people inside. And it was like Uncle Freddy’s wristwatch. Uncle Freddy had opened it up for Georgie, to show her how it worked. The inside was full of tiny springs and little wheels going back and forth, back and forth. Secretly. Quietly. There inside the watch where nobody could see. Like Eleanor. Just look at Eleanor! Eleanor had her book open on the table, and her hair was orange and her shirt was blue and she was glancing up at Georgie out of the corner of her eye. Eleanor was thinking something secret too, and Georgie didn’t know what it was. Inside Eleanor’s head the little springs and wheels were going back and forth and back and forth. Quietly. Secretly. Inside where nobody could see.”
I loved entering into Georgie’s perspective on such simple yet profound questions — a perspective that we can awaken in ourselves at any age if we have the courage to look at things afresh.
The Fledgling is not a perfect book, but it is an unusually thoughtful and imaginative one — with some wonderful images and language that certain young readers might just take to their hearts, as they are finding their own wings to fly.