Here’s the second of the vintage holiday read-alouds I recently read. I’ll have one more next week.
In the high world of the mountain tops, at the edge of glaciers, up where the eagles soar over the fields of rock, mosses and dwarf pines, lived Tobias Amrainer, a hunter, his wife and five children. The youngest of these was Christopher, four and a half; after him came Agnes and Crescentia, who were six and seven. Then the oldest girl in the family, Mary, ten years old, and a boy whose name was Franzi. Franzi was twelve…
The children of the Amrainers looked like the same child at various ages. They were all cut from the same wood. They had yellow hair, almost bleached to whiteness…There were no arguments, for mountain people talk little; and there was nothing for the children to fight over, for the fields and mountains were filled with the things that were their toys…
They got up at daylight and went to bed soon after dusk. There was no radio — only the song of birds, the call of animals in the forest, the howling of foxes, and the steady song of the wind…These children had a frugal life, and many chores to do. However, they also had great pleasures. They knew secret patches in the forest below, where small delicious strawberries grew wild. They found aged trees whose trunks were filled with black honey. They learned how to tell weather; they ran and sang, jumped and slept, and listened to the echoes of their voices; and they were tough and hard of muscle.
Tobias Amrainer and his family live apart from all society, high in the Tyrolean Alps.The nearest community is the small village of Lech, Austria. The Amrainers eke out a living by watching over the neighbors’ cattle in the summer as they graze in the high Alps, and Tobias, keen hunter that he is, does a bit of poaching on the side. A chamois here, a partridge there. Just to
keep some meat on the table. Although their life is devoid of luxuries, it is full of natural glories and the heartiness, common sense, and peaceful sleep that come from hard work and outdoor living.
By far the greatest threat the family faces is the avalanche — the tumultuous barreling down of thousands and thousands of tons of snow and boulders and great timbers, thundering, booming, destroying everything in its path. To counteract that threat, the Amrainer children are taught warning signs and survival techniques from toddlerhood, and Tobias has prepared a nearby cave where they can flee and take shelter.
So long as Amrainer doesn’t trample the law any more than necessary to feed his family, and isn’t truly bothering anyone in the process, the gendarme of Lech is happy to look the other way. The routines of life in the Alps, and Christmas celebrations in Lech with relatives who own an inn, are simple and happy, until a fateful encounter with a grouchy visiting official. An official who quickly has a great chip on his shoulder against Amrainer, and a plan to bring development to the mountains that will change the Amrainer way of life forever. Between avalanches and officials, can the Amrainer family survive?
This past summer I stumbled upon a novel by Ludwig Bemelmans called The Golden Basket. (That review is here.) I had never known that the author of the Madeline stories had written so much else — fiction and nonfiction, picture books and novels, for adults and children. The High World is another of his children’s novels, published in 1953. The world of those who dwelt in the high Alps — their homes and habits, their isolation, their clothing and holidays and food — is superbly preserved in this wonderful story. How fortunate!
Again in this novel, Bemelmans uses heaps of intriguing details to create a deeply authentic story. Tobias Amrainer in all his stubborn, shrewd, taciturn, solidness, comes alive, and with him a whole panorama of alpine villagers who disdain the progress these government officials want to foist upon them. There’s intense danger and droll trickery, pastoral scenes and chaotic moments and buckets of adventure — a great read-aloud with wide appeal for ages 7 or 8 and up.
Bemelmans has also illustrated this with his characteristic mix of ink drawings and oil paintings. Lots of details in the pictures make sense out of the descriptions of places and tools and people, adding immense atmosphere as well. The rustic mountain hut and furnishings, the Tyrolean musicians mingling in a warm, wood-paneled inn, the cantankerous official whose shin Christopher has just walloped — all grab our attention through Bemelman’s vivid, spirited, impressionistic style.
I’m calling this a holiday book because three years of Christmases are celebrated in its short 100 pages, but it’s not so Christmas-y that it couldn’t be enjoyed at any time of year . If you can find a copy, and enjoy unique settings in your books, give it a shot.