Young Toseland Oldknow—Tolly, please, if you must give him a nickname, not Towser, or worse, Toto (I am trying to look past the implied insult to Oz here, everyone)—is off to live with his great-grandmother in a very old house that to him feels very far away. He is both scared and slightly hopeful: since the death of his mother, his only real family is a distant father and a well meaning but generally clueless stepmother, so a great-grandmother feels like something. She might even be real family.
Spoiler: she is. What Tolly didn’t expect—and couldn’t expect—were the ghosts. Or, if you prefer, The Children of Green Knowe.
Like her fellow children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lucy Maria Boston—better known by her initials, L.M.—got a late start with writing, not publishing her first novel until she was 60. Her parents, separated in age by twenty years, had eccentric ideas of both parenting and interior decorating, which helped shaped her early imagination. After the death of her father when she was only six, her imagination was further shaped by a year in the country which sparked a lifelong love of gardens. This love also led her to make an impulsive purchase of an old Norman house, with, of course, a garden, in 1937. She would dedicate much of the rest of her life to the house and its gardens—until she turned to novels, most of which, in one way or another, were about the house.
Including and specifically this 1954 book, which is lavishingly and lovingly filled with descriptions of the house, its decorations, its many oddities, its gardens, and various animals, both real and ghosts, especially birds, showing that Boston Had Opinions About Birds. It also shows that Boston loved her home, regardless of seasons: the floods that make it virtually impossible to get to and from the house create a delightful adventure; the deep snow is a marvel; days without snow equally marvelous.
Houses had featured strongly in children’s literature before this, of course—the “send children off to a country home” was a British literature staple for decades, perhaps most famously as a starting point for the Narnia series, and in that sense, The Children of Green Knowe fits solidly in that trend. It is also hardly the first book to give that country house a sense of magic—C. S. Lewis and Edith Nesbit had played with this—and as we recently saw, hardly the first book to let the house serve as a time travel portal—Nesbit again, and Philippa Pearce.
But where many of those books focused on the inevitability of change—something that seems particularly inevitable for a ghost or time travel story—The Children of Green Knowe is not so resigned. Oh, certainly Boston admits that some things have changed since the seventeenth century—forks are now commonly used, for instance. Still, everything in the house is so focused on the past that when a car appears later in the novel, it’s almost a shock to remember that this book—at least the present timeline—is set in the 1950s. And Tolly isn’t just interested in the people who previously lived at Green Knowe. He wants them to join him now, in the present. Fortunately for him, the previous occupants loved the house so much themselves that they are more than willing to shake off a small little thing like death in order to stay in it. But I anticipate.
Tolly spends his days exploring the house and the gardens, alternatively aggravated and intrigued by the various whispers he hears and the glimpses he gets of three children who bear a very strong resemblance to three children in an old painting. At night, Mrs. Oldknow—the book sticks to using this title for her, and it does fit; however much Tolly may love her, I can’t quite get myself to think of her as Granny—tells him stories of the past: hers, and those of those three children, Toby, Linnet, and Alexander. According to Mrs. Oldknow, they died in the Great Plague, or around 1665-1666, but not before having some fun with horses and moving statues and a haunted topiary and a very sardonic Charles II in a nice cameo appearance. And by “died,” I mean “kinda died,” since this is a ghost story, and the ghost children are, it must be admitted, rather casual about the whole “oh, yeah, we died,” sort of thing. They are far more interested in teasing and playing with Tolly and their toys.
Much more serious is the threat posed by the topiary, but here, the book falters, because although honestly a haunted topiary tree really should be one major plot, Boston is less interested in plot, and more interested in the house; the tree has a Scary Moment, but honestly it all falls rather flat. Much more intriguing is the discovery that being haunted by a ghost does wonders for your flute playing, and if you wear the right sort of clothes you just might be able to see a Magical Ghost Horse.
(Parents should be warned that the Magical Ghost Horse and the Haunted Tree plots are both loosely tied together by a romanticized, somewhat stereotypical Gypsy story, complete with horse stealing and curses.)
The book hints—no more than that—that just possibly all of this is something that Tolly is imagining, egged on by his great grandmother, who has her own need to believe in ghosts and magic. Or at least the practical minded might feel that way. But if Boston allows herself to admit that the ghosts might have some perfectly logical, mundane explanation, she also very much wants to believe that this house is so marvelous that, for many of its residents, death really isn’t the sort of thing that should stop them from enjoying the house.
This is not exactly a favorite book of mine—I found my attention wandering, perhaps because Boston’s love for her house outweighs her love of plot. But readers who love animals, ghosts, and terrifying cursed trees may be more enthralled than I was, and those looking for something warm to curl up to, or for a Christmas story, might find that this is the right sort of book.
Mari Ness rather wishes that ghosts would teach her to play various musical instruments. She lives in central Florida.