Regular readers of this blog know that Elizabeth Enright is one of my favorite authors. My favorite of her novels, one of my all-time favorite books, is Return to Gone-Away. Return to Gone-Away is the sequel to Gone-Away Lake. The first book is nice, too. But the second one is magical. Charlotte mentioned Return to Gone-Away in a recent post as her "favorite summer holiday book", and inspired me to re-read it.
Return to Gone-Away is one of the ultimate "big, interesting, mysterious house" books of children's literature. As the story begins, 11 1/2 year-old Portia Blake and 7-year-old Foster learn that their parents have purchased Villa Caprice as a summer home. This Victorian mansion lies deep in the woods, close to Gone-Away Lake (a crumbling one-time resort near the home of Portia and Foster's cousin Julian). The house was once the summer showplace of the pretentious Mrs. Brace-Gideon, but has been boarded up for more than 50 years. The Blakes, with help from Julian's family and the two elderly residents of Gone-Away Lake (and a host of hired workers), spend the summer making the house habitable. In the process, they make lots of wonderful discoveries (from antique furniture to a shell collection to a dumbwaiter). Portia, Foster, and Julian also spend considerable time running around the woods with their friends, swimming in a quarry, and playing in the abandoned houses of Gone-Away Lake. I tell you, this book is a pitch-perfect portrait of a small-town, East Coast, 1950's summer.
As with Enright's other books, Return to Gone-Away is largely episodic. Days are spent doing this or that. Small adventures occur. While everything is framed around the Blake family's summer-long reclamation of Villa Caprice, there are plenty of tangents. Reading the book is, in fact, rather like spending a summer's day out of doors, reacting to whatever comes up. But it works, because Enright is skilled at creating characters who feel like real kids, and creating settings and incidents that kids will find interesting. Villa Caprice is fabulous. The run-down houses in Gone-Away are charming. Portia, Julian, and Foster are practically 3-dimensional (helped along by Beth and Joe Krush's timeless illustrations). And while their parents aren't conveyed in much detail, the two elderly residents of Gone-Away, Aunt Minnehaha and Uncle Pin, are wonderfully quirky. My favorite character is Foster. He likes to keep lots of interesting things in his pockets. He's noticed that feeling happy often makes him hungry. He feels betrayed by his intact front teeth (when his best friend's have fallen out). It is quite clear that Elizabeth Enright had real experience with young boys (she had three sons).
I'm not really objective, since I love this book so much. But I think that it holds up quite well for being 50+ years old. Swimming in a quarry is still cool. Spending the night in a creaky, abandoned house near a swamp is still scary. Younger brothers are still pests. It's all timeless. (Though with a few older expressions thrown in, like "Heavens!" and "Thank fortune!") There is, perhaps, a tiny bit more wish-fulfillment than you find in a children's book today (the family finds sufficient antiques in the house to pay for the needed repair, Uncle Pin remembers the old swimming hole on the hottest day of the year, etc.). But perhaps not. If you know any kids who like the Penderwicks books, you should absolutely try them on Return to Gone-Away (after reading Gone-Away Lake first, of course).
Here are a few of my favorite passages:
"He led the way. Portia skipped behind him along the narrow well-known path, and Julian, clanking faintly, brought up the rear. To the right lay the broad swamp, shorn by winter of its reeds; to the left stood the old houses in their neglected yards. They were a tatterdemalion lot, with shutters hanging from hinges, front steps skewed crooked, porches sagging: the Delaney house, the Vogelhart house, the Tuckertown house (where the children had a clubroom in the attic), and all the others, including the one that had ceased even to be a house. The Castle Castle, named for the family who had built it, had collapsed years before in a bad storm and lay now in a great heap of rubble, all scrawled over with a withered vine." (Chapter 2)
"The first one up, next morning, was Foster Blake. He had slept industriously for eleven hours and woke up all of a piece without any lingering or yawning." (Chapter 3)
"The fork-tailed birds, azure-blue in the sunlight, swooped and curved in and out of the tottering cupola that crowned the decaying mansion. They used the air as fishes use a river; they seemed to swing and spin effortlessly on invisible currents." (Chapter 8)
"When Foster started calling Julian at the top of his lungs, she hardly heard him, and when Julian told her he was going downstairs, she did not hear him, either. Sometimes a story can open a world for you: you step into it and forget the real one that you live in. Evidently this was such a story." (Chapter 9)
If that last quote doesn't make you want to read Return to Gone-Away, then I can't help you. This, as I said, is one of my favorite books of all-time. I can't recommend it highly enough. The Gone-Away books would make an excellent family read-aloud series, too, with interest for older and younger kids. If you've never read them, you are in for a treat.
Publication Date: Originally, 1961. Most recent edition, 2000.
Source of Book: Personal copy (bought my current copy at the New England Mobile Bookfair ~ 1995, but first read a library copy in elementary school)
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.