The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam originally published in the UK, 1981; published in the U.S. in 2014 by Europa Editions
I’ve just read such a gorgeous work of fiction.
It’s an exquisitely-crafted story set in Cumbria, that sweeps us into the lives of the characters with such aching familiarity, it’s painful to let them go as we turn the last page.
Popular British author Jane Gardam won the Whitbread Prize for it (they’re now called Costa prizes) in 1981 and it was finally released in the U.S. last year.
The Hollow Land is categorized as a children’s book, but there is nothing remotely childish about Gardam’s brilliant characterization, gloriously well-drawn setting, keen insight into life’s humor and poignancy, and dry wit. This is a short novel that will win the affection of adults as least as much as children, and probably lure you into Gardam’s other juvenile and adult works.
The novel follows the lives of two boys, Bell Teesdale and Harry Bateman. At the outset, they are ages 8 and 4. In nine episodes we witness their growth to manhood, rather despite their many adventures and misadventures along the way. It’s truly a wonder they survive their reckless childhood days.
Cumbria, with its dramatic fells, dales, and peaks, is home to families who have farmed and kept sheep for generations. Tucked-away in small farmhouses, separated by steep hillsides and rushing becks, everyone still knows everyone else’s business. Hay fields, cow byres and sheep dips — this is the world Bell Teesdale has grown up in.
Harry Bateman’s family are outsiders, Londoners, who have come to lease Bell’s grandad’s old place, Light Trees. It’s to be a vacation cottage for them. Their initiation to Cumbrian life is a muddle of misunderstandings, as they carom up against a culture they don’t understand. Once harmony is established, though, the Batemans become as much a fixture of the country as the old Egg-Witch herself, and Harry and Bell become lifelong friends.
These two find themselves in mortal danger more than once — exploring an abandoned mine in one go, and, on a search for some spectacular icicles, winding up stranded in a blizzard. A bit Swallows-and-Amazons-esque in the depiction of independence in the outdoors, come what may.
Jane Gardam grew up in Cumberland and North Yorkshire and her characters are as earthen and real as a nubbly wool sweater. We hear their broad dialect; see their windburned faces; know them in all their homely, unperturbed ways, and fall in love with them. She introduces us to some of the most eccentric characters this side of Dickens, with conversations and scenes that made me laugh out loud.
The Egg-Witch, for one, is as curmudgeonly a gal as you’ll ever meet, serving up revolting milk that “tastes of meat.”
Granny Crack has an epic, alarming episode with some blackberry juice.
And there’s a hilarious, soggy fishing expedition, capped off with the tale of The Hand of Glory, delivered in a marvelously understated fashion.
It’s a stunning array of both provincial and outlandish.
Throughout the story, the land itself is as much a character as any, with its sublime wildness, its rhythm of seasons and the work accompanying them, and its unpredictability. This land and the ancient ways of living upon it are indelibly marked on the psyche of those who love it, and the prospect of its loss is unbearable. And herein lies the greatest tension of the book, which bushwhacks us in a riveting final chapter.
Who do I recommend this to? As a read-aloud, it will work with children ages about 8 and up who are not put off by a multitude of British-isms. If you love the beauty of Willa Cather’s prose, the love-of-land of Wendell Berry, or the vivid characters of Marilynne Robinson, I believe you’ll also find something new to love here.