Alison Uttley, The Country Child (1931)
In my last Make me read it poll, The Country Child by Alison Uttley edged out David Copperfield and The Scarlet Letter for the win. I’d had a hard time getting into the first chapter of this fictionalized memoir of the author’s childhood in early 20th century Derbyshire, and I needed a little push. Thank you for giving it to me, because it turned out to be a really lovely book. Although it cycles through the seasons from autumn to winter to spring to summer, the heart of the book takes place at Christmastime, and so it was a perfect read for this time of year, too.
The opening, that I at first found hard going, concerns the child Susan’s fears of the wood near her house, that she has to go through frequently, terrified that “They” will get her. Perhaps it was this creepy horror-story vibe that put me off, but once I got a bit further into the book it turned out to be only part of Susan’s imaginative experience. A somewhat lonely only child, not paid much attention by her busy parents on a working farm, she invests all the natural world and household objects around her with life and consciousness, imagining them as her friends, and sometimes enemies.
Uttley’s description of this lost rural existence before the wars of the last century makes for enchanting reading, if you enjoy rather slow-paced, evocative, episodic stories. There are human connections, too, with farmhands, visiting pedlars, and schoolmates — including a humorous scene in which Susan inadvertently invites all the girls from her school over for tea — but the strongest impression is left by the inanimate, yet vividly characterized environment in which this “country child” is growing up.
At the end, Susan’s fear of “Them” is evoked again, but she’s grown stronger; she defiantly slams the farm gate behind her to show them that she’s safe. Within the covers of this book, we, too enter a world where we can be sheltered and comforted, reminded that beauty, transformation, and wonder are always possible.
Thank you again for making me read it! If you’ve not yet entered Susan’s world yourself, I hope you will give it a try.
Illustrations by C.F. Tunnicliffe from the Folio Society edition (2008)