The title ‘The Windy Hill’ caught my eye as I was looking through a list of books published in 1921, because none of the books I had lined up to fill that slot in my Century of Books were really calling me. I liked the title, I liked the cover, and a little basic research revealed the ‘The Windy Hill’ was a runner-up for the inaugural Newbery Medal, and that it was available on Project Gutenberg. And so I began to read …
Oliver and his sister, Janet, were spending the summer with their mother’s favourite cousin, Jasper. They had always liked him, and when he visited their family home he had always been cheerful and interested in whatever they were doing, but in his own home he was distracted, and clearly something was troubling him.
When things got too much for Oliver, he decided to take a walk:
“He had not meant to when he came out through the pillared gateway of his cousin’s place, he had only thought that he would walk down the road toward the station – and see the train come in. Yet the resolve had grown within him as he thought of all that had passes in the last few days, and as he looked forward to what was still to come. As he walked down the road, rattling the money in his pocket, turning over his wrongs in his mind, the thought had come swiftly to him that he need no longer endure things as they were. It was three miles to the railroad station but, once there, he could be whisked away from all the troubles that had begun to seen unendurable. The inviting whistle of the train seemed to settle the matter finally …”
But, on the way to the station Oliver met a neighbour- he introduced himself as ‘The Beeman’ – and when they talked Oliver realised that he should stay, and that he and Janet should try to find out what was troubling their cousin. And do something about it!
They found that there was a dispute between Jasper and another neighbour – a very unpleasant man – and that, quite inexplicably, Jasper was doing nothing at all to protect his interests.
The children continued to visit The Beeman, to hear his wonderful tales of local history, and to ask his advice. They found out what was going on, and then they found out why, but they had no idea what they could do. But then fate gave a helping hand, and everything fell into place.
‘The Windy Hill’ is an odd patchwork of a book.
The Beeman’s stories were wonderful, and I can understand why the children were entranced. They were stories of American history, as it was lived in his valley, full of engaging characters and rich descriptions that brought their stories to life. And of course those stories had a bearing on the story of cousin Jasper and his troublesome neighbour.
That story was not so well told. It was likeable, but it didn’t live and breathe like the Beeman’s stories. The villain was a little too villainous, Jasper was a little too feeble, and though the logic worked it all seemed just a little unnatural. The ending was nicely dramatic, but lessons were learned and new courses were set much too quickly and easily.
A pity because, although the prose is not elegant it is always readable, and there are moments that capture the importance of family, history, home, and the beauty of the world quite beautifully:
“His halting words carried the real earnestness of conviction. They seemed to give cousin Jasper some sort of comfort, for his face relaxed, he moved form his tense attitude, and turned to walk up and down the terrace through the patches of light and shadow that lay between the windows. Janet thrust a friendly, affectionate hand under his arm as she walked beside him, It was a hot might, at Jane’s very highest tide, with the garden at the summit of its beauty. The Madonna lilies were in bloom, showing ghostly white through the dark rows and ranks and armies of them all up and down the walks and borders, sending sudden ripples of sweetness upward to the terrace whenever the faint breeze stirred. There was no moon yet, but the stars were thick overhead, and the moving lanterns of the fireflies glimmered among the trees, low down still as they always are in the first hour of the dark. Janet was thinking that the world was so beautiful, it was difficult to believe things should go so entirely wrong in it, but she did not find it quite possible to put her idea into words…”
So on balance I’d be inclined to say that this is a likeable, readable book, but not a great book.