I can tell you, however, what my favorite book of all is Listening Valley, by D. E. Stevenson (see Wikipedia page). It's kind of an obscure choice, but I love it just the same. Dorothy Emily Stevenson (whose father, according to Wikipedia, was cousin to Robert Louis Stevenson) was a prolific writer of romantic novels, from the 1930s through the 1960s. Her books are mainly centered around several fictional towns in Scotland, and (like in Madeleine L'Engle's books), major characters from one book frequently appear as minor characters in others. I love this, because the reader has a chance to find out what happened to those characters afterward, after the "happily ever after".
I learned about Stevenson's books from my mother, and my father's mother. They both enjoyed these relatively light, family-oriented stories, many of which were still being published in the US in the 1970s. For me, Stevenson's books are the ultimate comfort reading. I own copies of perhaps half of her books, and always check for others when I'm in used bookstores (yes, I could order them online, but I enjoy the chase). Many of the books take place during World War II. While Stevenson doesn't shrink from describing the horrors of the blitz and the hardships of the English and Scottish citizens during the war, she maintains a sense of the heroism of the soldiers and the citizens, and the way that their stubborn spirit will not let them lose the war.
I love all of Stevenson's books, with the possible exception of her Mrs. Tim series (which was loosely autobiographical). They are humorous and touching and entertaining, filled with a wide range of strong characters. I actually think that Stevenson's writing influenced my own moral compass. Though with a light hand, she demonstrates a clear sense of right (fighting for your country, making do with a smile in the presence of hardship, being loyal) and wrong (being selfish, neglecting your children, lying), and in the context of character and story.
But my favorite of all of Stevenson's books is Listening Valley, the story of Antonia Melville's coming of age during World War II. The story begins with Tonia's childhood in Edinburgh. She's an odd, dreamy child, with hands that don't seem to work properly, and she spends most of her time in the shadow of her beloved, dynamic older sister, Louise. Their parents are comfortably situated, but demonstrate hardly any interest in Tonia and Lou (if only one of them had been a boy!). They do have a loving Nannie, but Nannie is sent into retirement when the girls reach their late teens. Not long after that, Tonia is abandoned by Lou, who elopes with pretty much the only boy she's ever met (a boy whose mother is not "respectable" - hence the need for an elopement). Tonia is left alone and unloved, with few connections to the world outside of her parents' house, immersed in books, until she is rescued by an older man. Various events follow, during the war, and eventually Tonia ends up living by herself in the small Scottish town of Ryddelton. There, she finds her true home.
I was in need of a bit of comfort yesterday, and I re-read Listening Valley (for probably the dozenth time). I tried to analyze why I love it so much. As with all favorite things, part of the love comes from familiarity. I especially enjoy the part of the book in which Tonia arrives in Ryddelton, a town she has never visited before, where she is welcomed with open arms because her family was from there. Every time I read the book, I feel like I'm coming home to Ryddelton, too. There's clearly a part of me that would like to live in a small town, where I know all of the neighbors, and where people help each other. I also love that this book (as do some of Stevenson's others) starts out as a children's book - with the story told from the perspective of two young girls. Here's the opening passage:
"Most people, looking back at their childhood, see it as a misty country half-forgotten or only to be remembered through an evocative sound or scent, but some episodes of those short years remain clear and brightly coloured like a landscape seen through the wrong end of a telescope. It was thus that Louise Melville was always to remember the house with the high wall and the adventure connected with it. Antonia was to remember it, too, but not so vividly, for really and truly it was Lou's adventure. Lou was the adventurous one." (Page 1)
I think that the other part of my particular bonding with Listening Valley is that I can identify with Tonia. I was a child who hid out in books, too. It's clear, on reading the book now, that Tonia is an introvert. Here is Tonia's response to an argument with her parents:
She ought to have become used to rows by this time, she ought to have learnt that they never led to anything but were just sound and fury, and blew over like thunder-clouds leaving a clear sky, but Tonia was too sensitive, she felt the blows upon her own person--felt them far more keenly than the antagonists." (Page 73)
Recently someone was giving me a hard time, though fully believing that he was being funny, I'm sure. I had a headache at the time, and I said later that the person "might as well have been hitting me", likening the words to physical blows. Did I get that image from Listening Valley, which I had last read several years ago, or do Tonia and I just have that in common?
That's not to say that Tonia isn't brave and smart in her own way. She grows up a lot through the course of the book, and she does learn to stand up to the people in her life who try to bully her. Look at me, trying to defend Tonia, trying to make sure that my readers don't think ill of her. I think that Stevenson's gift is that she creates characters who feel real, and who the reader cares about. Tonia is like someone I know. I want to spend time with her and protect her. The actual events of the book are largely immaterial.
Two other passages particularly resonated with me, on this this reading. The first is from Tonia's great-aunt's diary, describing a conversation between the aunt, who never married, and her oldest friend. Both lived their entire lives in the same small town, and had loves that were lost.
"Some people might think our lives dull and uneventful but it does not seem so to us. We talked of this and agreed this it is not travel and adventure that make a full life. There are adventures of the spirit and one can travel in books and interest oneself in people and affairs. One need never be dull as long as one has friends to help, gardens to enjoy and books in the long winter evenings." (Page 241)
If she lived today, that aunt would be a blogger, I think. And finally, this musing by Tonia about someone she loves struck a chord:
"Such a trifle to remember, but it was trifles like this that made up your life, and if there was somebody who could share them with you, understandingly, it made your life a paradise." (Page 244)
That's certainly true for me, and I am fortunate to have that person who shares my trifles, with understanding and interest, as I share his.
I'm not sure whether this retrospective - I can't quite call it a review - will inspire anyone else to want to read Listening Valley. It's clear from the quotes above that Stevenson had a bit of a tendency towards run-on sentences, and that many modern readers will find the books overly sentimental. But personally, I'm happier, having taken some time out to visit Listening Valley today. Thanks for listening.
Other reviews: Angiegirl at Angieville first read this book as an adult, and offers a perhaps more objective (but still positive) opinion.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.