by Richard Llewellyn
I can\’t remember the last time it took me a month to read one book. I have simply been busy- all the regular stuff plus a basement remodel, guests for the holidays and a very large project at work that has gone way past the deadline, have eaten up all my free hours. I\’m still trying to wrap up stuff at work, often too tired at the end of the day to focus on more than a magazine article before sleep…
Well, this is a book that sat a very long time on my shelf- for over eight years. I can\’t recall what prompted me to first pick it up at the Book Thing, except perhaps the title caught my eye. Reading it at once I was reminded of Germinal, because of the similar theme. How Green Was My Valley is set in a coal-mining village on a mountaintop in Wales. It is told from the viewpoint of a younger son in a large family, Huw Morgan. Most of this bildungsroman is about family centeredness- the strong moral code, the younger son learning skills from his father and older brother. There is an incident in his childhood which leaves him weakened and bedridden for several years, so he studies a lot and becomes well-versed in classical literature. It is baffling later on when he is sent to receive formal schooling, but the school is run by the English and they look down on him and think he is ignorant, just because he is Welsh. Huw learns carpentry from the local preacher and boxing from a group of prizefighters- and there are lots of ins and outs in the story about love- his brothers wooing different women and getting married, the unrest some of these pairings cause in the family, his long infatuation with his brother\’s wife, his curiosity about \’the facts of life\’ and final realization with a girl from the next valley over- this part of the story was actually quite funny, as he didn\’t like the girl at first but she weaseled her way into his company. For some reason I never really connected with the main character- nothing about him really stood out to me, except that he had a strong sense of right and wrong, curiosity about how the world works, and didn\’t hesitate to question the actions of those around him when they seemed senseless.
The parts about mining and its effect on the valley loom in the background- slag heaps piling up to nearly topple over the houses, grime slowly covering everything, the meadows of flowers suffocating, the streams devoid of fish- but it all occurs so gradually people don\’t notice until it seems too late. Most of their concern was keeping their livelihood- Huw\’s brothers are involved in creating a union and there is a lot of unrest, times of suffering and famine. The ending, when Huw\’s father goes down into the mine to find one of their men who didn\’t come back after going down to see why the tunnels are flooding- well, it ends in tragedy as you might expect. All the fighting and suffering and despoiling of the mountain, to end in loss and sorrow.
The language is beautiful. Throughout the entire book there is a unique pattern of phrasing that comes from the Welsh language- it took me a while to get used to it, and then I loved the way the descriptions would put images in my mind. Huw\’s thoughts on the nature of the land and the depth of relationships in people around him are quite eloquent. It is for this I might keep the book on hand to read again, or look for others by this author- although from reviews I glanced at, the sequels to How Green Was My Valley aren\’t as good.
Rating: 4/5 497 pages, 1940