Ghosts, gorillas, grandmothers: all of these and more are to be found in L.M. Boston's classic series for children, The Green Knowe Chronicles. Boston lived from 1892 to 1900, and these books, originally published between 1955 and 1976, are a bit dated, especially in their references to people of color. To be clear, Boston takes a friendly attitude toward people of color, and one of the major characters in three of the six books is Ping, a refugee from Burma, but the terms she uses to describe Ping and the few other people of color in the series are dated and do not fit with current sensibilities. Other than this, Boston's books are delightful, idyllic stories.
The series centers on a centuries-old manor deep in the English countryside. The characters are not always the same from book to book, making this series similar to the better known Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, in which all seven books are set in Narnia but the characters are not the same in all of the books. While there are no talking animals or alternate universes as there are in The Chronicles of Narnia, The Green Knowe Chronicles do have a feel of magic, or perhaps of magical realism closer to some of Gabriel García Márquez's works, but with a much more positive undertone. There are friendly ghosts of some of the house's former young inhabitants in books one, two, five, and six, and there are some decidedly magical adventures involving flying horses, a friendly giant, and primal antelope-men in book three. Book four in the series is the least magical, although some readers might argue that the relationship between a gorilla and a boy is magical in its own right, and the house itself seems magical in that it seems anything is possible there.
The six books in The Green Knowe Chronicles are:
- The Children of Green Knowe
- Treasure of Green Knowe
- The River at Green Knowe
- Stranger at Green Knowe
- An Enemy at Green Knowe
- The Stones of Green Knowe
The Children of Green Knowe introduces readers to the manor called Green Knowe through a young boy, Tolly, who is visiting it for the first time. It is the family home of his dead mother, and he is being sent there during vacation because his father and step-mother have moved to Burma while Tolly is still in school in England. Tolly is apprehensive about spending Christmas vacation in this unknown house with an unknown great-grandmother, but his great-grandmother proves to be a kindred spirit with a knack for telling stories, and Tolly soon falls under the spell of the home, enchanted by its colorful history. As he becomes more and more a part of the house, he starts to meet the ghosts of three 17th-century children, Toby, Alexander, and Linnet, and he also befriends several wild animals who inhabit the countryside near Green Knowe. This is a slow, charming story about a boy finding a home and connecting with his family's history.
In Treasure of Green Knowe, the ghosts of Toby, Alexander, and Linnet have left the home with the removal of a painting of them, which is on loan to a museum. Readers also learn that the future of the home is in jeopardy due to his great-grandmother's financial situation. Tolly is devastated by the removal of their painting and the possibility of losing the home, but becomes interested in the history of the painting that has taken their place. Through Granny Oldknow's stories inspired by this replacement painting, Tolly and readers learn about the family living at the manor at the end of the 18th century. The father of the family is a sea captain in the British Navy, often away from home. The mother and elder brother are stereotypical foolish, vain characters. The young daughter, Susan, is blind and misunderstood by everyone in the house except her father, who is rarely home. Susan's life improves when her father buys the freedom of Jacob, a young black boy from Barbados, who becomes her companion, allowing her much more freedom than she had under the care of her severe grandmother and over-cautious elderly nursemaid. Tolly befriends the ghosts of Susan and Jacob, but he also interacts with this part of the family's history by searching the home for the mother's jewels, which went missing and were never found again. Tolly is inspired by a story in which Jacob must climb up the home's chimney to explore the chimney himself, and he conveniently finds the jewels hidden in a flue to a room that no longer exists in the house, but that used to belong to an unpleasant servant who was fired shortly before the jewels disappeared. The discovery of the jewels assures financial security for Granny Oldknow and for Green Knowe and provides a happy ending for the book.
Tolly, Granny Oldknow, and the ghosts of Green Knowe are totally absent from The River at Green Knowe. They have rented the house out for the summer to take a seaside vacation; renting the house are an archaeologist and her friend. These ladies decide it would be nice to have children in the house for the summer, so they invite Ida, the archaeologist's niece, as well as requesting that two children be sent from the Society for the Promotion of Summer Holidays for Displaced Children. Ping and Oskar are the two children the society sends; they and Ida become fast friends, and the three children spend the summer exploring the river that borders Green Knowe. They have plenty of magical and non-magical adventures on the river in this story that is the epitome of summer. This book feels rather like the classic The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, except it is about children instead of talking animals.
A Stranger at Green Knowe feels the least like the other books in the series. It takes place the summer following Ida, Oskar, and Ping's adventures on the river and is divided into three parts. Part One is about forty pages long and follows the lives of a family of wild gorillas in the African jungle. The young male gorilla is captured and put in a zoo, where, years later Ping meets him on a school trip during Pat Two of the book. Oskar has been adopted, but Ping is still a refugee living in an institution, and Ping immediately feels a kinship with the gorilla, named Hanno. Ida can't invite Ping to her home for the summer because of visiting cousins, but she writes to Mrs. Oldknow who agrees to have Ping for the summer as Tolly is away on a vacation with his father and step-mother. Meanwhile, Hanno escapes from the zoo and ends up--where else?--hiding out in the bamboo grove at Green Knowe, where he and Ping become fast friends. But it's only a matter of time before Hanno is discovered there, and, like so many children's books with animals on the cover, things don't end well for the animal in question. In this case, Hanno is shot at the end of the story: his actions to protect Ping from a charging cow are mistaken for signs of aggression. The silver lining is that Ping and Granny Oldknow have become friends, and she invites him to come live at Green Know with her and Tolly.
In An Enemy at Green Knowe, the feeling magical realism returns as Granny Oldknow tells Ping and Tolly stories of a mad scholar who lived at Green Knowe for a few months in 1630. As in the first two books, Granny's stories start to coincide with events in the boys' lives. A mysterious female scholar, Melanie Powers, shows up, looking for the mad scholar's books. Although Granny tells her, truthfully, that his books were burned, she continues to prowl around the house, and soon rumors crop up in the town about her, and a series of plagues begin at Green Knowe. Ping and Tolly, with some help from Granny Oldknow, do their best to repel or counter-attack the plagues which are clearly Melanie's work, but the plagues become more and more vicious. Finally, the boys discover one of the mad scholar's books that had escaped burning and are able to use it to create a spell to vanquish Melanie and save the home from wreck. To add to this happy end, Tolly's father, who lives in Burma, shows up at the home with a guest who conveniently turns out to be Ping's missing father.
The Stones of Green Knowe introduces a new character, a young boy named Roger who was part of the family who constructed Green Knowe in 1120. He discovers two stones, one that allows him to travel to the past and one that allows him to travel to the future. Traveling to the future, he meets first Toby, Alexander, and Linnet, then Susan and Jacob, and finally Tolly. This last story beautifully ties together characters from various stages of Green Knowe's existence, emphasizing the sense of history and continuity that runs through much of the series. (Ping is not mentioned, though, leaving the reader to assume that he and his father are now living together somewhere else. This is the only disappointing aspect of the book; it would have been nice to know what happened to Ping, rather than being left to guess.) Still, it is interesting to read about life in medieval England, albeit an idealized version of it, and the sort of reunion of all the ghosts from different time periods at the story's end is a nice conclusion to the series.
Similar Titles: Tales of Magic series by Edward Eager, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis