16 January 2006

How Green Was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn

(written Jan 9, 2006)

Llewellyn's book is a classic, and rightly so. Mom gave it to me and Sam when we moved to Wales, as it's about South Wales, where we're living, and its history as a center for coal mining. All one need to is say the word "coal mine" and automatically you know the story is sad, but interestingly, this one is more on balance happy than sad, which I think speaks to a certain Welsh sensibility. It's horrible what happened, but at least I was lucky enough to have some good, positive memories--that sort of ethos.

The use of language is astounding, as he gives you a sense of Welsh without putting very much actually in Welsh. So for example:
There is good a cup of tea is when you are feeling low. This, and plenty of milk, and brown sugar in the crystal, in a big cup so that when your mouth is used to the heat you can drink instead of sipping. Every part of you inside you that seems to have gone to sleep comes lively again. A good friend of mine is a cup of tea, indeed. (p. 192)

"There is" begins a lot of sentences in this way, and it makes for a lilting quality to the sentence that really echoes what I've heard of the accent in English as spoken in Wales.

The story is all memory, another aspect of it that is particularly poetic. Occasionally we snap back to the main narrator, Huw Morgan, now an adult watching as his childhood home is swallowed by a pile of slag from the mine and remembering all of the trials and happiness his family experienced in the 19th c.

Obviously the book deals with politics and particularly the politics of unionization as it effected the family. The narrator's elder brothers work tirelessly at unionizing, there are overtones of "Mr. Marx" in the air (a much resented foreigner meddling in Welsh affairs) and the power of the corporations and capitalists bears down on them as much as the slag heap does. Early passages remind me a bit of Deadwood, with the discussion of the lack of police in the Valley, and the father's attitude that as soon as you have police, you have trouble, and people should be able to take care of justice themselves. The descriptions of the people in the book are amazing, from the preacher who falls in love with Huw's sister and mentors Huw through his education, to the pair of miners that are always together and end up opening a bar together when they get kicked off of the mine--they are both boxers and work out on the mountain constantly. Reminiscent of Jack's dream of a ranch together in BBM, no?

This is a wonderful read—worth the effort to wallow in the language a bit before the story gets going, and an amazing picture of what it must have been like in Wales in the 19th century. In the end, the family ends up scattered all over the globe, from NZ to America to South Africa, a real diasporic scatter to say the least, and indicative of the way in which the demise of the mines led to this kind of migration. Fascinating stuff and highly recommended.

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