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.
Classics Club List #7
Phoenix Award Honor Book 2000
11 thoughts on “Classics Club: The Fledgling”
I had never heard of The Hall Family Chronicles before. Your post led me to Google about them. Though written for children they sound interesting and worthwhile. The Transcendentalists are so interesting and important. It seems like this series connects to them in a very original and creative way.
It was certainly my first introduction to the Transcendentalists, and still persists in my memory today now that I live near their stomping grounds.
I loved this book when I read it as an adult, but my kids, who were in middle school, didn’t care for it. I can’t tell you why–maybe it was just because I’d discovered it rather than letting them find it on their own.
I have a feeling adults might appreciate it more than children — depending on the child of course. I’ve left it lying about to see if my son gets interested, but I won’t push it on him.
I have enjoyed most of the titles I have read from this series – The Fledgling and The Fragile Flag are my two favorites. I think your review is spot-on – not a perfect book, but so worth reading for those beautifully written descriptions Langton throws in there every now and again. Thanks for reminding me of this book, and of the fact that I have yet to finish the series!
And now I need to read The Fragile Flag.
I too am a Hall Family lover, but I’ve only read this one once. It didn’t grab me as much, but I do love the bit you quote, and perhaps I should give it another read. (I have read Fragile Flag, but also only once; the others got more reads.)
And yep, these books were my first introduction to Transcendentalists too!
It would be interesting to make a list of children’s books that introduced us to philosophers or their ideas. I know the first place I ever read about Plato was in the Chronicles of Narnia.
Hey, that would be a fun exercise. Yeah, I had no idea what Professor Kirke was talking about the first several times I read the Narnia books!
I can’t think of any other examples off the top of my head, but there must be some. Does Daniel Pinkwater make any philosophical references?
Oh yeah, usually of Buddhist things (in a very silly way of course). It was years before I realized that the Dharma Buns coffeehouse was a takeoff on Jack Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums.” And “The Last Guru,” a story that might well not be published today, is one extended riff on American fascination with, and marketing of, ancient wisdom of the East.
Less philosophically, “Alan Mendelsohn” plays with New Age-type stuff, and is where I first saw reference to Mu and Lemuria. I assumed those were made up for a long time — it’s often hard for a kid to tell when he’s making stuff up (borgelnuskies) or just mining real life (Wartburg cars).