The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

FYA Photo-a-Day 2 - Childhood Favourite (and why it made my day today)

This is a picture of my daughter with the favourite book of my childhood: The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo.  

It is a book that swept me away, that I re-read well into adulthood and which still moves me to this day.  But it is also my favourite because of the memories it holds of a hot summer day, a long time ago.  The piece below was originally written for another blog (hi, Lauren) but I wanted to share it again, largely because of what happened after I took the above photograph earlier today.  Read on.

On trying to choose a childhood favourite, about half a dozen books flashed through my head.  The Little Vampire (I loved it); The Secret World of Polly Flint (which was the first book that I ever re-read immediately on finishing it); and A Dream of Sadler's Wells (Sebastian, Sebastian, Sebastian) but in actuality, there was only ever one real contender: The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo.  This book will forever be close to my heart not just because of its magical, moving story and memorable characters, but also because it was the first book that I ever bought all by myself and you will have to bear with me, because the memory of buying it is integral to my love of the story itself...

I was 8 years old and my father had taken me with him to work for the day.  This would probably have been terribly dull, except that on this hot summer day he had to go from our home on the Isle of Lewis to Portree on the Isle of Skye and I was to go with him – away from my younger brothers, just me – on my own with Daddy.  It was a big thing.  It became even bigger when I was allowed to sit up front, albeit on a booster seat.  I was wearing my best dress at the time, which was sky-blue linen, drop waisted (this was the Eighties, remember) and just the prettiest thing I had EVER SEEN.

On arriving in Portree, we parked overlooking the harbour and my dad headed off to his meeting, leaving me with a whole £2.50 to amuse myself with in the local shops.  I had never had this much money to myself and remember feeling quite boggled at the idea that I could choose what to buy.  I wandered down the main street and into one of those shops peculiar to small, Highland towns.  It sold newspapers, fishing rods, sun cream, iced lollies, t-shirts, groceries and books.  I was already a great book lover but was pretty sure that I didn't have enough money to buy a book.  Obviously, I still found myself standing in front of the books and there it was:  the most beautiful book I had ever seen – I remember actually stroking the cover because it was so pretty.  And not only that, but it sounded amazing... and it was only £1.95!  I hurriedly took both an orange iced lolly and my precious find to the cashier and rushed back to settle myself in the car, where I started on a book that remains a favourite to this day.

Gwyn Griffith is a magician.  On his ninth birthday his Nain (Grandmother) informs him that he has magic ancestry in the forms of Welsh figures of lore, Gwydion, Math and Milfaethwy and bestows on him several strange gifts, urging him to cast them to the wind and claim his magical inheritance.   The gifts include a piece of seaweed, a twisted brooch, a small and sinister wooden horse and a yellow scarf that once belonged to his older sister - a sister who went missing on the mountain above their farm four years previously.  From this mysterious start spins a story of a tiny silver spider who can weave stories into her webs; glorious flying ships soaring over the Welsh hills; barely glimpsed cities of ice and singing and the mysterious Eirlys, a girl who bears more than a passing resemblance to Gwyn's missing sister. 

The characters are impressively written and fleshed out, considering that this book is aimed at 9-12 year olds.  Gwyn himself is a serious and thoughtful boy, one who would make a winning protagonist in any YA offering.  He is oddly charismatic, yet quiet and caring, desperately holding his own in a household crumbling under the weight of a missing child.  Nain is a wonderful creation – a whirlwind of red velvet, chiming bracelets and wild black curls who often seems quite mad yet is bright and focussed as a bird as she cannily pushes Gwyn towards his destiny.

However, the real heart of this story is the relationship between Gwyn and his father – a man bowed and embittered in his grief, who has forgotten what he still has in the face of what he has lost.  Even as a child I remember being completely aware that Mr. Griffith desperately needed the presence of stranger, Eirlys in order for him to actually see Gwyn again, rather than his son continuing to only highlight the absence of his daughter.  The climax of the story occurs during a ferocious storm and is nothing less than thrilling.  It is all beautifully written.  I read The Snow Spider repeatedly as a child and was surprised to find, when I picked it up once more to prepare for this post, how little it has dated.  It is gratifying to find a novel for children that is written with adult sensibilities.  The themes of loss and grief are subtle, but not brushed over – indeed, they inform the whole story and turn what could have been merely magic and fluff (which are perfectly acceptable all by themselves) into a story with real depth and meaning.  As a child I found The Snow Spider magical, as an adult I find it life-affirming.

So there we have it, I am so glad to have had reason to revisit this lovely story and the memories that come with it – and those memories are inescapable.  Each time I read it I can almost taste the sticky sweetness of that iced-lolly, hear the sounds of gulls and the sea and feel blue linen sticking to my back in the heat of a beautiful summer's day.  Best of all, I can remember my father's still young face smiling as he returned to find me curled up with a book.  To have all these memories and this fantastic story in my possession...I am lucky indeed.  Read it if you get a chance, and then pass it on to the nearest 10 year old – you won't regret it.

So, this morning, I'll admit that I set the picture up - I liked the idea of having my child in the picture with my childhood favourite. But I didn't expect what happened next:

It turns out that my favourite has found a new home. We were very nearly late to school. And I couldn't be happier.

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