My first Jane Gardam: Bilgewater

Jane Gardam, Bilgewater (1976)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

I first became interested in Jane Gardam upon reading Michele Landsberg’s description of Bilgewater in her wonderful guide to children’s literature, Reading for the Love of It:

The characters are a gallery of endearing and sometimes buffoonish eccentrics, and all of them, young and old, reticent or extravagant, act out the various and extravagant follies to which they are driven by love.

By now, having read all the Jane Gardam books I could get my hands on, the “gallery of endearing and sometimes buffoonish eccentrics” to which she has introduced me has greatly expanded, as this is one of the strengths of all her writing. But Bilgewater was my first, and I’m still very fond of her.

The title refers to the nickname bestowed upon the novel’s narrator by the boys of the boarding school where she lives with her widowed father, a housemaster. (“Bill’s daughter” = Bilgewater, to a schoolboy’s sense of humor.) Her real name is Marigold, a sunny, cheerful name that contrasts with her image of herself as an ugly, froglike creature suitable to be dismissively called “Bilgie.” But the radiant side of her being is manifest to us from the first chapter, in the energy and verve of her narration.

I emerged into this cold house in this cold school in this cold seaside town where you can scarcely even get the telly for the height of the hills behind — I emerged into this great sea of boys and masters at my father’s school (St Wilfrid’s) an orange-haired, short-sighted, frog-bodied ancient, a square and solemn baby, a stolid, blinking, slithery-pupilled (it was before they got the glasses which straightened the left eye out) two-year-old, a glooming ten-year-old hanging about the school cloisters (“Hi Bilgie, where’s your broomstick?”) and a strange, thick-set, hopeless adolescent, friendless and given to taking long idle walks by the sea.

As readers, we don’t see or care what she looks like; what matters is that here is a brilliant, original mind, able to look at herself and the world with humor and insight that far transcends the ordinary. But at seventeen, looks are paramount — so when she’s given a makeover by the glamorous headmaster’s daughter, it seems possible her life might take a turn for the better.

Fortunately, things do not develop in any dull, conventional way, but go badly astray with hilarious, tumultuous results. Along the way we meet many of those endearing eccentrics, chief among whom is the indispensable Paula, whirlwind of a house matron and the closest thing Bilgewater has to a mother. Though she has no dress sense and is given to handing out items from the rag bag, we can tell Paula’s love is the real thing, however blind those around her may be to her true worth.

And then there is the “great sea of boys and masters,” some of whom give Bilgewater/Marigold her first painful, confusing experiences of attraction and repulsion, love and loss. As she negotiates these treacherous waters, trying to discern what is real and life-sustaining in the midst of deception, falseness and dishonesty, we are reminded of our own journey towards truth — a journey that can be taken up at any age.

I can’t possibly write as well as Jane Gardam does, or explain how she manages to make us laugh while treading on the edge of despair. I can only say that once I found her funny, warm-hearted, and verbally dexterous writing, I didn’t want to stop reading it. If you haven’t already, I hope I’ve intrigued you enough to pick up this or another book by one of the great comic novelists of our time.

And please, don’t be misled into thinking this is only a book for adolescents to read, just because it’s about one. A blurb on my edition insultingly says “Here is a brilliant talent that, if it appeared in adult fiction would be noisily greeted and deserve to be.” Such a talent should be greeted wherever it appears, and the theme of making individual human connections in the face of all the forces that seek to divide and estrange us (or conversely, submerge us in conventional sameness) never loses its relevance, even after the teenage years are long past.


In Brief: New Releases for Young Readers

GoodbyeStranger  Marvels  HiredGirl


This fall, three of today’s brightest names in writing for children and young adults have new titles out. Even if you haven’t read their previous award-winning works, and whatever your age, these are all worth a look.

Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead (When You Reach Me; Liar and Spy)
With its mature themes of social media abuse and sexual teasing, along with fluctuating viewpoints and jumps in time, Stead’s latest may be a challenging read for the middle-school age group it’s aimed at. But it’s a challenge that could be well worth taking, as at the heart of this story are genuine, relatable, questioning young characters who in their varying ways are searching for the meaning of selfhood. They make mistakes, sometimes serious ones, but find the courage to try again and re-forge broken relationships. Some of the solutions seemed a bit pat to me, but the quietly eloquent writing carried me along and the hopeful, sweet ending made me smile.
August 4, 2015 from Wendy Lamb

The Marvels by Brian Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret; Wonderstruck)
Author-illustrator Selznick starts his story with (mostly) wordless pictures — nearly 400 pages of them, creating a historical-theatrical extravaganza that intrigued me greatly. I wasn’t as enamored of the second, narrative part of the book, which seems to go initially in a completely different direction before returning to the image-story with a twist of perspective. Ironically enough, the “real story” rang less true to me than the fantasy, too heavy with Meaningful Issues and forced connections that didn’t feel genuine. An interesting experiment that fell somewhat flat.
September 15, 2015 from Scholastic

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz (A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, Splendors and Glooms)
This was far and away my favorite of the three, a historical novel in diary form written by a fourteen-year-old Joan, a farm girl in 1911 Pennsylvania who hopes for a better life. As articulated by Schlitz, Joan’s voice is alternately funny, fierce, and vulnerable, as she bravely — but very naively — makes her way from an oppressive family to employment that has its own risks and challenges. The unusual exploration of clashing minority religions (Joan is Catholic; her employers are Jewish) is sensitively done, and the historical setting is fully and convincingly realized. Many facets of history and culture are seamlessly integrated, from the chapter titles taken from real works of art that Joan might have seen, to the origins of the Baltimore school founded by progressive Jews where Schlitz works today as a librarian. A pleasure from beginning to end.
September 8, 2015 from Candlewick

Advance reading copies were received from the publishers for review consideration. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.


Battle of the Books

The School Library Journal Battle of the Books is nearly over! One of the things I enjoy about this tournament-style contest is that rather than being handed a winner by some group of more or less anonymous judges, we get to read their responses in detail, with some very individual and sometimes controversial reasoning behind the choices. It was much more interesting for me this time since I had actually managed to read more than half of the books.

Would I
do this again next year? I’m not sure, because it made me cram a lot of
“required” reading into a short time, crowding out other books I wanted or needed to read. But I’m
not sorry I made the effort this year. If you have read any of these, please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Here are my play-by-play reactions:

Round One
Match 1: Brown Girl Dreaming vs. Children of the King
Winner: Brown Girl Dreaming
I’m in the middle of listening to the audiobook of Brown Girl Dreaming, and even though I’m not a huge fan of the free verse format, Woodson’s child’s-eye view of growing up during the civil rights movement is moving and eloquent. Hearing the author read her own book gives it an especially personal touch. Children of the King was a good and interesting read, but didn’t quite succeed in making history come alive in the same way.

Match 2: The Crossover vs. Egg and Spoon
Winner: Egg and Spoon
One of the few brackets in which I finished both contenders, and I would have chosen differently. For me, Egg and Spoon started well (with a particularly fun rendition of Baba Yaga) but faltered at the end. On the other hand, I was dubious about The Crossover but liked it more and more as I read — it was funny and inventive and emotionally engaging, and the characters became real for me. I hope it got votes in the Undead poll!

Match 3: El Deafo vs. The Family Romanov
Winner: El Deafo
I agree with the judge here. The Family Romanov is fine narrative non-fiction, but El Deafo is unique, an excellent use of the graphic-narrative form to express the protagonist’s experience of deafness (empty speech bubbles, fading words) as well as a universally relevant story of the trials and traumas of childhood.

Match 4: Grasshopper Jungle vs. The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza
Winner: The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza
I didn’t read either of these; I would get nightmares from reading a book about giant grasshoppers destroying the world, and I started Joey Pigza but found the middle-grade gross-out style of humor unappealing — not realizing that it’s actually a hard-hitting portrait of mental illness and child neglect. I might look into the series again some time but would probably not start with this one.

Match 5: The Madman of Piney Woods vs. Poisoned Apples
Winner: The Madman of Piney Woods
I didn’t read Poisoned Apples; a poem or two using fairy tale metaphors to explore issues of teen body image could be fine, but a whole book? The commentators confirmed my fear that this could get repetitive and boring. I enjoyed The Madman of Piney Woods, and like judge G. Neri I “grew fond of the characters and the place,” though something about the arc of the story didn’t quite work for me. It’s worthy to move on, but there are stronger books in the battle.

Match 6: The Port Chicago 50 vs. The Story of Owen
Winner: The Port Chicago 50
I adored the premise of The Story of Owen — teenagers fighting dragons in a modern-day Canadian town — but although the characters and setting were well-developed and believable, the plot was lacking in narrative tension and I lost interest before the end, which is why I have yet to finish it (though I would like to). The Port Chicago 50, on the other hand, I read straight through, finding it a lucid and compelling story that illuminated an important but overlooked historical incident, as well as how far we still have to go toward racial equality. The commentary by judge Rachel Hartman was especially thoughtful on this one.

Match 7: This One Summer vs. A Volcano Beneath the Snow
Winner: This One Summer
I don’t read many graphic novels, but This One Summer was an impressive example of storytelling through a visual medium. I wouldn’t consider it a children’s book, but I guess I’m in the minority with that opinion. My history education being quite spotty, I was grateful that A Volcano Beneath the Snow filled in many of the blanks in my knowledge around the abolitionist movement and the Civil War, but I can understand it not beating This One Summer; the latter is simply the more striking book. (Added points for the humorous style adopted by the judge here.)

Match 8: We Were Liars vs. West of the Moon
Winner: West of the Moon
We Were Liars sounded as though it had an extremely annoying writing style, and I’m also not enamored of books that depend on a twist no one is allowed to reveal, so I skipped it. West of the Moon had great potential — I love the idea of weaving Norse folklore into a real-life story. But the story was so frantically paced and packed with brief, melodramatic incidents that it made me feel tired before I got to the end. Still, I’m glad it won this round.

Winners in Round Two:
Brown Girl Dreaming, El Deafo, the Port Chicago 50, West of the Moon
These were pretty easy to predict. The first three were shoe-ins (I thought). The fourth was more iffy, and I was slightly surprised by the outcome. Although I didn’t much like either This One Summer or West of the Moon, I thought Summer was the more impressive book. Will it come back in the final round?

Winners in Round Three:
El Deafo, The Port Chicago 50
This is where things got really heart-breaking. Brown Girl Dreaming against El Deafo? Nooooo! Still, one book had to be the winner, and El Deafo continued its unstoppable march to the podium. The other round didn’t move me so much: worthy but conventional non-fiction vs. genre-bending but problematic fiction. Which to choose? I thought The Port Chicago 50 did a better job at what it set out to do, which is exactly how judge Marcus Sedgwick put it.

The winner of the “Undead Poll” will be revealed on Monday, and the final battle will take place the following day. May the best book win!

A Song of Second Chances: A Solitary Blue

Cynthia Voigt, A Solitary Blue (1983)

I owe Cynthia Voigt an apology. When she won the Newbery Medal for Dicey’s Song in 1983, beating out my favorite book at the time (The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley), I retaliated by refusing to read it or any others in what came to be an acclaimed seven-book cycle about the Tillerman family and their friends. But when A Solitary Blue, the follow-up to Dicey’s Song, came again to my attention through the Phoenix Award list, I thought I would give it another chance after 30 years. And I found that the award committee has a point: this is a beautifully written, deeply affecting book, with much insight into the painful process of loving and accepting one another and ourselves, while knowing when and how to walk away from unhealthy relationships.
To be fair, I doubt I would have enjoyed or appreciated it as a teenager. At the time, McKinley’s thrilling tale of adventure and magic in the desert was exactly what I wanted, not a slowly-paced story about a boy abandoned by his mother and learning to understand and live with a distant father. So maybe it’s a good thing I waited until now.

As a parent myself, I was already engaged–to the point of anger–from the first page, when seven-year-old Jeff Greene reads a letter from his mother telling him that she has to leave him in order to help other people, and stifles his tears because his father, whom he calls The Professor, doesn’t like emotion. How could they do that to him? Wouldn’t he be completely messed up?

Over the course of the novel, we find out how they could do that to him: how Jeff’s mother, Melody, could be so selfish and self-deluded as to think she could pick up and drop a child at her own convenience, and how his father could deeply care for his son and yet be so ignorant of children’s needs as to neglect him almost to death. The Professor actually learns from his experiences, and his gradual growing into relationship with his son is moving and real. Melody, on the other hand, is basically pure evil: a modern-day witch holding out a poisoned apple of false love to Jeff. We gain insight into the way her twisted mind works, but not into how she got that way, or into some remnants of humanity in her that we might be able to sympathize with. This one-sidedness creates a flaw in what is otherwise a rich portrayal of character and emotion.

Of course, Jeff himself is the core of the novel, and as we live through his experiences (which do mess him up quite thoroughly), we grow to know and love him in his weakness and his strength. How he finds healing and redemption in the face of serious challenges, finding his way from desperate isolation to community, is a quietly compelling tale. The setting, which moves from Baltimore to South Carolina to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, comes to life through Voigt’s carefully crafted prose, and the natural world holds a strong presence in Jeff’s healing process.

Another element is his relationship with Dicey Tillerman, who comes into the story only near the end, another wounded soul struggling toward the light. Without any gooey sentimentality, it becomes clear that she is important to Jeff and that their friendship will develop further. Her story is more fully told in the earlier and later books in the cycle, which I’ll be sure to seek out now.

A Solitary Blue reminded me that real literature has no age limits. A book that is right for one person at age 14 may be right for another at age 44. Though we tend to want to label books by age or genre, or simply as being “not for me,” when we set aside our prejudices we can make some wonderful discoveries. This was one for me.

Classics Club List #2
2003 Phoenix Award Honor Book


Quick Quotes: Bilgewater

You can’t pray for my trouble. Infatuation, it’s called. Being in love. Christianity is supposed to be all about love but it’s utterly useless when you’re in love. There’s not a blind thing you can do about being in love it seems to me except sit it out. Jesus said love one another. He said the only commandments that matter are to love God and each other. He didn’t say that loving, especially each other, tears you to pieces. Might have been better if he’d said Don’t love one another. Just try and get along with each other and if you feel love coming on go for a long brisk walk like father tells Uncle Edmund.

Marigold Green (Bilgewater) in Bilgewater by Jane Gardam

Where in the World Is Susanna Kaysen: Cambridge

Susanna Kaysen, Cambridge (2014) on the title and publicity, I was expecting Cambridge to be a portrait of Susanna Kaysen’s childhood (and current) home town, Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, while I found that it actually didn’t have much to offer about Cambridge, it did contain a stunning self-portrait of a girl who isn’t sure who she is or where she belongs.

“It was probably because I was so often taken away from Cambridge when I was young that I loved it as much as I did,” she begins. But can twice be considered often? (She spends one year in London and Florence at the age of seven, and one year in Athens at eleven, plus summer vacations on Cape Cod, which I don’t think really counts.) Granted, these are pretty dramatic removals at key points in her biography; the major toilet traumas that she suffers might alone cause her to cling to the safe American haven of her infancy. But as I read, I came to think that her displacement was more of an inner phenomenon than an outer one.

One indication of this is that oddly, in this childhood memoir there are no children. Susanna has one nerdy neighbor/friend, Roger, who functions as a sort of convenient prop rather than a personality in his own right. She also has a little sister whom she barely mentions after begging her parents to “send her back” proves unsuccessful. Of relationships to classmates or other children: zero, either positive or negative. Her world revolves around adults–adults who with few exceptions mock her, betray her, or abandon her.

When Susanna decides that she doesn’t like school and retreats into a corner with a book, her teacher simply ignores her. Her mother is a concert pianist manqué who torments Susanna by forcing her to take the dreaded solfege lessons. After a while a wonderful young aspiring conductor appears to tutor her, but after a short time he is taken away again by mysterious romantic complications. And so it goes…the geographical shifts seem to be just an outward sign of Susanna’s inability to find a stable source of affection. And even as she wonderfully describes some of the universal agonies of
growing up, her detachment and self-isolating behavior is disquieting. Something is
going to go wrong with this girl. (I haven’t read Susanna Kaysen’s earlier-published memoir about a later period in her life, Girl, Interrupted, but I can see the seeds for that account of a stay in a mental hospital in this book.)

Of course, “Cambridge” might be also taken as a name for a certain cultural phenomenon, the elite American academic social stratum that locates its mecca there. Born into this society, but failing to achieve the requisite accomplishments, Susanna perhaps loves Cambridge in the way one loves an abusive parent. She can’t live up to its ideals, but she can’t separate herself from them. Thus, while Cambridge is sharply observed and beautifully written, and sometimes very funny, it carries an undercurrent of sadness throughout. If you’re looking for a cozy travelogue of a university town, look elsewhere; this is a journey through the landscape of the human soul, and it’s not always pretty.


Harriet’s Sister: A Long Way From Verona

Jane Gardam, A Long Way from Verona (1971)

Can you believe Harriet the Spy is 50 years old? Yes, she first made her appearance in 1964. In honor of this anniversary here’s a recent reread at A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy that goes through the whole book with chapter-by-chapter reactions, ending up with a more considered review. For those of us who grew up with her, it’s a fun way to remember and reconsider some of our own experiences with the inimitable Harriet M. Welsch.

Since that’s been done quite thoroughly, I want to write instead about another character who could be Harriet’s sister in spirit: Jessica Vye in Jane Gardam’s A Long Way from Verona (winner of the 1991 Phoenix Award). Verona was published just a few years after Harriet, and though the setting is England during the Second World War rather than the Upper East Side in the early 60s, the rebellious and questioning mood of the time informs both books. Harriet and Jessica are both smart, quirky misfits who want to become writers. They are similar in how they observe and comment on the world around them, from the ridiculous antics of incomprehensible adults to the perplexing behavior of their peers.

For example, here’s a passage where Jessica and her friends decide to challenge the local teashop to actually give them some tea (this is during rationing, remember).

There was a thin woman behind the counter in a lavender overall reading a magazine. Now and then she gave a colossal great sniff and turned a page. Florence gave me a push. ‘Go on then,’ she said. I coughed.

The woman didn’t look up. She turned a page and flexed her feet and I coughed again.

‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘may we have some tea?’

‘Eh?’ she said.

‘Tea,’ I said.

‘Tea?’ she said.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Like it says.’

‘Well I don’t know,’ she said. She looked hard at the card. It was pinned to an archway where two long red plush curtains were caught back in the middle at the top of the three steps.

[. . .]

It grew very quiet.

‘Look,’ said Helen after a while, ‘why did you want to come out to tea? I can’t see what you wanted.’ She has narrow hands and a narrow face, Helen Bell. She is good at playing the piano. On the whole I don’t like people who are always playing the piano. They have mean little mouths.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s an outing, isn’t it? It’s nice. It’s something to do at the end of term.’ [. . .] We’d had this all out before I may say, we’d discussed it for hours. We’d got permission–letters from our mothers and a shilling each and everything. The way they plugged on at things in this school! It takes them ages to get on and do anything. There is a lot of Danish blood on this part of the coast my father says, and the Danes tend to stand about rather. After all, look at Hamlet.

In her first novel, Gardam, who has since produced more than 20 acclaimed works of fiction for children and adults, is already an accomplished and subtle writer. She suggests rather than explaining; for example, when a major trauma hits Jessica, we are left to infer for ourselves what happened, and how she learns and changes throughout the story is hinted at rather than stated outright. This can make reading her story challenging, but this style (which Gardam perfects even more in later books) seems an attempt to portray the way most of us really think and understand the world: not in tidy narrative packages, but in glimpses, fragmentary experiences that we may only later put together and comprehend. Gardam’s ability to approach this, without being annoyingly opaque or archly “experimental,” is a sign of her genius, in my opinion.

Jessica is older than Harriet, closer to the threshold of adulthood, and the wartime setting, with the constant risk (and occasional fact) of being bombed, obviously brings in more serious aspects. However, both books have a deep emotional impact that comes from the central characters being so finely drawn, so real and so human. As we feel and think and suffer with them, we learn what it means to be true to oneself, and that that is the only thing that really matters. It’s an important message for any age.

In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Jane Gardam says of her writing process, “It’s about getting to know a character and loving them, I think.” While Harriet has legions of fans already, I hope that many more readers young and old will have the pleasure of getting to know and love Jessica Vye.

Thanks to Europa Editions for their reissue of this and some of Gardam’s other early novels; she’s a wonderful writer who deserves more attention.

1991 Phoenix Award winner
Midnight Garden Classic YA/MG Challenge