“Two properly hemmed handkerchiefs, the first I had ever owned, that had sprigs of flowers in the corner… Then I had a comb with all the teeth in; a camisole, edged with lace, in good condition (I had nothing to fill it up with then, but the giver remarked that I would soon grow into it); and a much-battered tin trunk that looked very presentable when Dad had banged out the biggest dents with a hammer…”
–A Child in the Forest, by Winifred Foley
I don’t usually read non-fiction, but my sister-in-law gave me this book for my birthday in June and I’ve been looking forward to reading it. It’s the girlhood memoir of a coal-miner’s daughter who grew up in an isolated village in the Forest of Dean* in the 1920s. Her family is largish, loving, and very poor, often getting food for a daily meal on credit, if at all. As a child, snuggled into bed with her big sister and little brother, Poll dreams of large meals and elaborate wardrobes. Like an English version of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, this story seems designed for the education of rich modern people, written by an author who sees in retrospect that her way of life was remarkable, lovely, and passing away with the march of progress. A Child in the Forest is arranged thematically at the beginning, with chapter titles like, “School,” and “Granny and Grancher.” Each section contains several highly detailed, humorous, and forthright stories, as well as general descriptions of common scenes. Towards the second half the book is more chronological, and recounts Poll’s early forays into the working world, starting at age 14.
Because of the book’s episodic nature, there’s not a lot here to pull you forward unless you have a lot of inherent curiosity about ways of life in other times. I’ve always loved historical details about daily life (carpets were cleaned with used tea leaves, and bakers delivered bread to your house every day), so I found it fascinating. The imagination the family uses to make ends meet has you rooting for them from page one, and stories of Poll’s absentminded mishaps and social naïveté make it clear that the author is laughing at her younger self as she writes.
If you were/are a big fan of Little House on the Prairie, you will definitely like this book, although I would read it before giving it to your kid, as it is written from an adult perspective.
*a locale American readers might be most familiar with as the place where Harry Potter gets the sword of Godric Gryffindor out of the lake.