Feedback, at Renegade Writers, on my new novella, prompted a discussion on time travel and the appropriate tropes. Creepy music not being an option in print, though possible in an audio book, how to show that a character has slipped back, or indeed forward, into another time? The conversation, as always, was both knowledgeable and heated and I found myself citing some of my favourite time travel books.
The first, “The Children of Green Knowe” by Lucy M. Boston was one of the most influential books of my childhood. It tells the story of Tolly, who comes to stay with his Grandmother for the Christmas holidays.
Her house, Green Knowe is a magical place. The night Tolly arrives it is surrounded by floodwater and Boggis, the faithful family retainer, ferries him across by boat. Tolly, the last in a long line of Oldknows, who have lived in the house since time immemorial, is given the children’s nursery at the top of the house and it is soon very clear that he is not the only child still there.
The way that Toby, Alexander and Linnet appear and disappear, the expectation that they will be there and the disappointment when they are not is skilfully done. Like Tolly, the reader is never sure what they will see and when. Sometimes, there is only a patter of footsteps, a few bars of music, or quick glimpse of a mother singing to her baby in the Great Hall. On other occasions, like midnight Mass in the local church Tolly is back in the seventeenth century, when Linnet dresses up in boy’s clothes to be able to sing in the choir.
The fact that the three children lived in a different time and died in the Great Plague is neither glossed over, nor dwelt on. Linnet simply mentions their death, as if, after all this time, it is no longer important.
Part of the pleasure of this book is the vivid descriptions of the house and the objects in it. The carved mouse in nursery, the key to the box that the chaffinch pulls out from between the floorboards, where it has lain hidden for centuries. The lumps of sugar that Tolly leaves in the empty stable disappear and is sure that they have been eaten by Feste, the ghost horse. His grandmother, however, suggests that Boggis has put them in his mug of tea.
She is the mainstay of the story, part of the fabric of the house and its history, yet also Tolly’s present and, one suspects, his future. She is full of common sense, but has the ability to see the others who have lived in the house before her.
Time, love and loss, are themes in the book. Toby, Alexander, Linnet and their mother died while Captain Oldknow was away. Tolly’s parents are abroad. The grandmother is alone. But in spite of this the book is a joyful celebration of both change and stability.
Tolly will grow up, the grandmother will die, but a sense of them will remain within the walls of Green Knowe.
I loved this book as child and still do as an adult. If you do get a copy, then make sure it is one that contains the original illustrations by Peter Boston, the author’s son, whose woodcuts add so much to the text.