Spring is finally arriving, but it's fall book ordering season in my world. I've been reading lots of books about Santa and dreidels the past few weeks. By chance, in the middle of all that, I discovered that a book that I'd believed to be long out of print is alive and well. Well, but cursed with what may be The Worst Cover Ever for a children's book.
The Exiles is another four-sister book, this one by Hilary McKay, author of the wonderful Saffy's Angel and sequels. Even more than Saffy, this one is all in the characters. The Conroy sisters are sent to the seaside for the summer to live with their grandmother while the parents renovate their house. The two older sisters (Naomi and Ruth) find it difficult to do anything but read books constantly; the younger two (Phoebe and Rachel) love a good book, but also manage some imaginative mischief.
Their grandmother -- called by all Big Grandma -- puts them on a regimen of outdoor activities, chores, and no books. The girls are not enthusiastic.
There were plenty of reasons why she should be called Big Grandma. For a start she was very tall and muscly, and she ate a lot. Also, she wore men's pajamas and drank whiskey at bedtime. In a lot of ways she was huge. Her house was very big, too; even the toilet was higher than ordinary people's toilets. It had a wooden seat which always felt warm, and by Monday morning Naomi had decided that the only thing she really liked about Big Grandma's house was the toilet seat.Big Grandma sees the girls' escape into reading as anti-social, and she's determined that they find other ways to engage themselves. Slowly, of course, they all adapt to country life even as they resist it.
All by herself Phoebe [age 6] had acquired a new hobby. It was her own invention. Nobody had helped her, nobody but Phoebe would even have thought of it. You filled a bucket with water, tied a bit of string on the end of a stick, held the stick over the water, and there you were. Fishing in a bucket. The total hopelessness of the activity was very soothing. It was the perfect sport. Without the emotional stresses of success and failure, she was entirely free to enjoy the pleasure of the moment.After a hike in which she is immobilized by fear of heights, Naomi (11) sneaks back to the high spot, willing herself to overcome the fear, and falls and breaks her arm. She trudges back to the house and the swirl of breakfast conversation around her as she repeats four times, "I've broken my arm" before she is heard, distills the chaos of the family. The reader feels her pain, but still has to laugh.
McKay creates completely believable characters all of whom can be intensely annoying and yet children one would want as friends. The sisters' constant search for reading material -- cookbooks are read and re-read, Shakespeare is the only volume that's rejected -- continues through the summer. Slowly the reader takes in that it's all a grand plan on Big Grandma's part.
Big Grandma becomes more likable, but maintains her crusty aspects. The night after Naomi breaks her arm, Big Grandma sleeps in her room:
"D'you mind if I put the light on and read?"It's a delightful book, and a perfect summertime read.
"Very much indeed," said Big Grandma. "Try counting sheep jumping over a gate."
"I don't know what sheep look like jumping over a gate. I didn't know they could jump."
Naomi tried it for a few minutes. "They keep bashing their knees," she said eventually. "Big Grandma?"
Big Grandma dragged herself awake again.
"D'you think this house is haunted? Ruth does."
Big Grandma made an enormous concession, recognizing that if Naomi did not have something to take her mind off her broken arm she was quite liable to lie awake and talk all night.
"I suppose it might be a little bit haunted!"
"Perhaps a bit," repeated Big Grandma grudgingly. "In a manner of speaking. A rather flamboyant manner of speaking, and not strictly true."