The Morrow Books by H M Hoover

Cover to 1987 Puffin UK version, art by Michael Heslop

Tia and Rabbit are a little bit different from the other children at the Base, a primitive hunting and farming culture lorded over by the Major and the other Fathers (any man who sires a child is admitted to the upper ranks), who worship the relics of the ancient past, chief among which is a missile in a silo under their “church”. It’s an utterly repressive society, and a life of endless toil and constant fear of punishment for any transgression against the Major’s whims. Tia, though still a child, is taller than most of the other women and men at the base, though she gets breathless more easily; Rabbit, a younger boy, stammers. The two have shared a connection ever since Rabbit fell down a hole in the woods outside the Base’s grounds, and Tia, somehow hearing his cries for help, knew exactly where to find him. Ever since, she’s been branded a witch by the superstitious-minded people of the Base.

And, it turns out, she sort of is. She and Rabbit share dreams in which they talk to Ashira and Varas, a man and woman living in a far different community called Morrow. The Morrowans are telepathic, and survived the ecological “Destruction” of the past (which began with the “Death of the Seas”, during which 93% of all living creatures died of suffocation) thanks to the foresight of Simon Asher Morrow, who created a subterranean complex into which he and his chosen few could retreat while the Earth recovered. Tia and Rabbit can communicate with Ashira and Varas because they too are telepathic, and when Rabbit’s nascent mind-powers result in him killing one of the more abusive Fathers in Tia’s defence, the two children flee the Base and, guided by Ashira and Varas but pursued by the Major and a handful of hunters, make their way down a hundred miles of river to meet the Morrowans on the coast of what was, many years ago, San Francisco.

(The writing really comes alive, I think, when the children encounter things on this journey they at first can’t understand — a ruined and overgrown city, for instance, or the sea, whose strange, distant noise and smell puzzle them at first.)

Beaver Books, cover by John Raynes

Helen Mary Hoover’s Children of Morrow was first published in 1973, and has much the same scenario as John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, though the emphasis is less on that book’s struggle to keep its child protagonists’ telepathic powers secret, and more on the post-discovery chase and rescue. Unlike Wyndham, though, Hoover returned to the world she’d created with Treasures of Morrow (1976), a book that starts right where Children of Morrow ends, meaning the two can be read quite satisfyingly as a single story.

In Treasures of Morrow we get to see Tia and Rabbit’s journey to Morrow and their assimilation into a culture completely alien to them because of its technological advancement and its capacity for kindness. After this, Tia, Rabbit, Ashira, Varas and some other Morrowans go on an expedition back to the Base, and Tia and Rabbit get to look at the grim, unforgiving and brutal culture in which they were raised with fresh eyes:

“Did I ever look like that?” Tia wondered as she stared at them. At this distance, in their still pose, the women’s faces were blurs, one indistinguishable from the other. All had the same wild, tangled hair. All wore the same sacklike brown leather dress. Their feet and arms were bare and muddy. But it wasn’t their bedraggledness that bothered her so much as their hangdog air of subjugation. She had not been so aware of it before, and seeing it now, and remembering, disturbed her.

Although there’s less plot and less urgency to Treasures of Morrow (there’s still a tense, action-filled ending, but it feels a little less desperate than the first book’s, thanks to the comforting presence of the technologically-advanced and cool-thinking Morrowans), to me the second book feels a bit more emotionally satisfying. Revisiting their abusive childhood world, Tia and Rabbit get to see it for the sad, demeaning tragedy it is. They can even feel pity for their abusers, seeing many of them as doing the best they could in pitiless circumstances, or simply acting out of unthinking ignorance. Ultimately, they have to turn their back on the Base, but seeing it again, now they know a better alternative, allows them to properly leave it in the past.

Although it might sound like Morrow and the Base are being presented as moral opposites, Hoover makes it clear that Morrow isn’t entirely a utopia. It was founded by one of the very industrialists whose greed caused the ecological Destruction in the first place, and who did so out of the desire for personal survival rather than an ideological investment in humanity’s future. And a potted history of Morrow in the aftermath of that mass extinction makes it clear how close it came to falling apart, with a slow deterioration of its power structures, and the enforced inbreeding of its limited population. A contamination of its main protein supply led to a chance evolutionary leap, killing some, but resulting in a few children being born with telepathic powers, after which a strict programme (still adhered to) of controlled breeding led to their present state of all being telepaths. There’s still a hint, in Treasures of Morrow, that Morrow is in danger of cultural sterility, due to there being no other equivalent civilisations to interact with:

“I mean, we’re smarter than any of the old civilisations. But there’s no one else to care what we are—or do. For example, my sister, Elizabeth, says the neutron star in the Crab Nebula is winking out. Once that news would have excited astronomers all over the world. Now it excited about six people.”

Helen Mary Hoover

It would be interesting to read a third book on how Morrow deals with this situation — something Tia and Rabbit, raised in a different culture, might have a vital perspective on. It also seemed, in Treasures of Morrow, that one of the Morrowans, Senior Geneticist Elaine, was being set up to act as a Morrowan villain, with her coldly scientific attitude towards the people of the Base, and her disapproval of Tia and Rabbit. She accompanies the expedition to the Base, but pretty much fades from the narrative, except to make the occasional offensive comment, but I felt she had the potential to underline the sort of extreme Morrow might go to, if it ever lost touch with its humanity.

There’s also the question of Tia and Rabbit’s origins. In Children of Morrow, we learn they’re the result of an unauthorised experiment in artificial insemination by a Morrowan who happened on the Base, though even the Morrowans who discover the diary describing this incident agree it sounds unlikely. It sounds as though the Morrowans have a dark side to their nature they’re perhaps not confronting. So, plenty of potential for a third book, but as it is, the two we have feel complete, so far as telling of Tia and Rabbit’s escape from an unpleasant childhood goes.

I bought the first book because of the UK edition’s Michael Heslop cover. Treasures of Morrow doesn’t seem to have been published in the UK in paperback, so perhaps the first wasn’t as successful over here as the publishers were hoping. They’re both now available for Kindle.

A Castle of Bone by Penelope Farmer

Puffin edition, 1974, cover by Peter Andrew Jones

I managed to end up with two editions of A Castle of Bone before I got round to reading it. Two editions with different covers, each suggesting a quite different kind of book. The Puffin cover from 1974 was the first commercial work from fantasy & science fiction artist Peter Andrew Jones. It suggests an exciting, danger-filled adventure in which young teens are menaced by a somewhat science fictional-looking castle, spiky, dark, and (seemingly) revolving. The other cover, by Angela Maddigan, is from a 1973 hardback edition issued by the Children’s Book Club. It suggests a much more laid-back, poetic kind of fantasy, a journey of wonders and discovery rather than dangers. Halfway through reading Penelope Farmer’s A Castle of Bone, I began to wonder if either of these covers actually suited the book. There had been brief, dreamy trips to another land that centred on a castle, but after a while these seemed to have been dropped for a completely different plot in which three of the four teen protagonists are having to look after a baby, while keeping the fact secret from their parents. There was, in the end, one more trip to the land of the castle, but it was far stranger than either cover suggested. (And there was no rending of blouses as in the Puffin cover, though nor was it as placid as the Children’s Book Club cover.) But I’d be hard pressed to say what might make a good cover to this very strange book, which took me some time after I’d read it to figure out what it might even be about.

Children’s Book Club edition, cover by Angela Maddigan

The book starts with arty, somewhat spacey-headed teen Hugh (or borderline-teen — he’s about twelve, I think) being told by his mother that he needs to acquire a cupboard so he can tidy his room. His room is somewhat of a problem, as it has an awkwardly sloping wall, meaning it’s hard to find something that will fit, and Hugh is precisely the sort of youngster not to mind living in a room strewn with clothes worn and unworn. He’d far rather be either painting or staring into space.

But a cupboard has to be bought, so he and his father set out, and find an antiques shop (“junk shop,” his father says), where Hugh sees, and instantly realises he needs, the perfect cupboard. (His father calls it “monstrous, abominable.”) They take it home — it seems, oddly, almost “supernaturally” heavy — and install it, whereafter Hugh forgets about putting any of his clothes into it, and that night finds himself in a strange land, working his way towards a castle that always seems to be changing — sometimes it’s shiny, sometimes dark, sometimes it’s see-through. When he wakes up the next day, his feet are dirty.

Hugh’s best friend Penn lives next door, and he and his sister Anna come round to visit Hugh and Hugh’s sister Jean. At some point Anna (who is even more given to dreamy absences than Hugh) puts Hugh’s wallet in the still-empty cupboard and closes the door. A moment later, odd sounds are heard from inside. They open the door, only for a live pig — “quite unmistakably a real pig, with hanging dugs and crude, prehistoric-looking skin” — to flop out and make a dash for the exit. The pig escapes, but the cupboard remains. Soon, the four teens realise it has a magical quality: if you put something inside and close the doors, when you open them again, that thing will have been transformed to some earlier stage of its existence. Hugh’s wallet, for instance, was made of pigskin. Brass buttons put into the cupboard sometimes emerge as a puddle of molten metal, sometimes as the individual rocks from which their copper and zinc was extracted. There’s no controlling, or predicting, what previous stage in their existence the objects will revert to. And then, of course, the cat gets in. It emerges as a kitten.

There’s an obvious next step, one that everyone is curious about but nobody wants to try. What if a person went into the cupboard? It’s a possible way of achieving a sort of immortality. When you get old you simply get into the cupboard, turn yourself young again, and live a whole new stretch of life. But Hugh, Penn, Anna and Jean are all young already, so why should that concern them? Why does Hugh find himself irresistibly drawn to the idea of getting into the cupboard?

Farmer has two excellent qualities as a writer of fantasy. On the one hand, she inserts fantasy elements into her story that are highly charged with a host of possible meanings, and though this sometimes left me wondering exactly what it all meant, I was never in doubt that it did all mean something. (There are plenty of references to myth and folklore thrown in, too, from King Arthur to Odysseus to Thomas the Rhymer, only adding to the meaningfulness and confusion.) As she says in an essay, “Discovering the Pattern”, published in a 1975 anthology of essays by children’s writers, The Thorny Paradise:

“I am asked why, as a writer for children, I do not produce nice, solid, useful novels on the problems of the adopted child or aimed at the reluctant reader, and so forth, instead of highly symbolic (according to some reviewers) obscure (according to others) — anyway, difficult fantasies.”

When A Castle of Bone ends with — at last — a proper visit by all four teens to the land of the titular castle, it proves to be a very strange realm indeed. This is no trip to Narnia. The land of the castle is a land of possibilities and potentialities, where everything is, moment by moment, the possibilities of what it could be, rather than (as in our world) the one thing it has ended up being. It feels like a unique land among the many lands of fantasy literature, though not one you’d care to linger in.

The other quality Farmer has is a great ability to evoke the peculiarities of real life in a way that really makes her characters seem like genuine individuals. Hugh’s spacey moments, for instance, when he drifts off and gives in to dreamy abstractions, are a perfect representation of a certain type of adolescent mood, as when he gazes out of a window and:

“…it left him with an extraordinary, strange, creative ache; a beautiful yet unbearable sense of growing out of himself, exploding skin and bone. He tried to catch this feeling sometimes, record it, pin it down…”

The relationships between the characters are wonderfully realistic, too, with the four teens being bound together by, at times, nothing more than a mutual feeling of vague annoyance with one another. And they all find their parents as incomprehensible and mildly annoying as their parents seem to find them. It’s not the sort of crisis level of dysfunctionality you find in an Alan Garner novel, rather it seems like the healthily human sort of dysfunctionality you get in families that are happy to let each member be themselves, even if it means for a little friction.

So what is the book about? I always like the way a good novel can be open to multiple meanings, but, at the same time, I feel unsatisfied till I’ve found at least one for myself, so here’s my take on what A Castle of Bone may be about.

I think it’s about learning to accept one’s identity, one’s being-in-the-world, and the choices that are available to you in this life. It’s about seeing that identity is, in a way, tied up with mortality — with the fact that the life you live is one of constant (though slow) change, from baby to child to teen to adult to old age, but is still rooted in something changeless: the fact that, throughout these changes, you are always you. The “castle of bone” is the person you are, the body you were born into, with all its peculiarities, a castle that is protective of your identity (as a castle is) while also imposing limits on that identity (a castle can be a prison, too).

When Hugh first sees the cupboard, he instantly knows he has to have it:

“Immediately he had never in his life wanted anything as much as he wanted that, not even his first box of proper oil paints.”

1992 Puffin edition

I think this is because, at some unconscious level, Hugh knows that the cupboard represents the next stage in his growing up, his becoming who he is. A cupboard can be seen as a sort of metaphor for identity — it’s the thing Hugh is going to put his clothes into, so it’s going to contain his public persona, but it’s also one of those magical interior spaces, both limited and limitless, that represent the human imagination. At first, he didn’t want to go out and buy a cupboard, he just wanted his parents to pick one for him — “A cupboard was a cupboard, was a cupboard” — but being forced to make a decision is the first step to making the more important decisions in his life, such as who he is.

And the old man who sells him the cupboard later says that this is what Hugh must do to end the complications that the cupboard’s magic have thrown into the four teens’ lives: he must enter the cupboard deliberately, “And go into your castle.” — choose who he is, then start to become that person.

This old man is a somewhat puzzling character. (In the “Discovering the Pattern” essay, Farmer identifies him to some degree with Tiresias, the blind seer of Ancient Greek myth.) He seems to change in character from moment to moment. His junk shop is filled with things that prove to be images of himself — a bust, a figure in a painting, a portrait. It’s obvious he has been using the cupboard to achieve immortality, but that it is in no way a satisfactory immortality. He has become fragmented as a person, a series of remnants of his many former lives — not valuable antiques but, as Hugh’s father said, “junk”. This, then, is not the way to be in this world; one must accept one’s mortality, commit to one’s identity, and see it through.

A Castle of Bone is an intriguing book. It’s perhaps as puzzling as, say, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, and while it’s certainly not as traumatic, it could well be in the same league in terms of richness of meaning, only in a very different direction. It doesn’t have Garner’s intensity of focus (though I think Garner’s intensity, which makes his books what they are, is also the reason for the feeling of trauma in them — it’s the intense focus of the over-powerful intellect, dissecting emotions in a way intellect was never supposed to). Farmer’s is a book that manages to feel as though it’s about ordinary life at the same time as it’s about the unordinariness of life, the state of being a particular human individual, with all the unique peculiarities a human individual has, including the richness of the inner life, particularly at those self-defining moments in which you must decide, at some level, how to be you. (Which links it nicely to another Garner work, The Stone Book Quartet, which is based around similar moments.) Reading it did, occasionally, feel a bit frustrating — particularly when the main characters were spending so much time looking after a baby, and I wanted them to be investigating another world — but the ending, I think, made up for that, and perhaps on a second read, when I know the sort of book it is, I might enjoy it even more.

The Light Maze by Joan North

UK hardback of The Light Maze. Illustration by David Higham.

Twenty-year-old Kit Elton comes to the countryside to stay with her godmother, Sally Nancarrow, on the back of a broken engagement. Sally’s husband, Tom, disappeared two years ago — one moment he was in his study, writing a book “about the odd ways people’s minds could work”, the next he was simply gone. Kit is given Tom’s study as a bedroom, and on her first evening there, after examining a strange paperweight “carved in the shape of two fishes — or were they tadpoles? — curved, head to tail”, falls into a dream:

“She seemed to be walking through an avenue of tall, tapering bushes which twisted and turned in the wind. It had been raining and the sun shone on them so that they glistened and danced with a dazzle of light and swayed in the air like blown candleflames… and now indeed they seemed more like flames than bushes…”

Later, among Tom Nancarrow’s papers, she finds a mysterious reference to this very “Light Maze” she’d dreamt about, and learns of a local legend, the Lightstone, of which it’s said:

“If you hold in your hand the Lightstone and hear in the silence the true note which is yourself then you will be able to the enter the Maze.”

With Sally’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Harriet, and a local boy, Barney Medlicott, Kit learns more about both the Lightstone and the Light Maze, and comes to realise it’s into this otherworldly realm that Tom has disappeared. But her investigations pique the interest of Esmerelda Melling, a local member of the Club of True Seekers (“some of our members have very wide knowledge of occult matters”), whose hunger for “wonder, joy, bliss” leads her to try to use the Lightstone for her own purposes — not evil, merely selfish, but nevertheless with the effect of disturbing the balance between the Light Maze and our world, leading to more people disappearing.

UK hardback, back cover

The Light Maze was published in the US in 1971 and the UK in 1972. On the book’s back jacket flap it says that North’s books — of which this was her last published — “bring into an ordinary and often comical picture of everyday life an awareness of other worlds, other modes of being”. The comedy, here, is very light. North is gently satiric of some of her characters, such as the social busybody Mrs Medlicott, or the self-consciously exotic Esmerelda Melling, or the boisterously adolescent Harriet, but there’s nothing that feels overtly comic. The darker side is handled lightly too: all of the main characters, for instance, have experienced loss — Kit has broken up with her fiancé, Sally’s husband and Harriet’s father has disappeared with no explanation, Barney Medlicott is an orphan, and Francis Leland, a playwright who lives in a flat above the Nancarrow’s household’s stable, has lost both his wife and his ability to write — but once established, none of these instances of loss weighs too heavily on the story. They can almost be forgotten, as though North were allowing the reader to take it or leave it.

To me, though, it felt as though, after this intriguing set up, the characters’ depths weren’t really explored, which is an issue in a book which is, essentially, about entering one’s inner depths. The Lightstone and Light Maze, it becomes clear, are part of an allegory of self-realisation or self-exploration. Achieving the centre of the Maze leads to some sort of inner fulfilment, but to do so, one must face “the Guardian of the Threshold”:

“There is a theory that if we try to turn our attention inwards, to explore our own depths, to find out who and what we are, we are liable to be confronted by a sort of shadow-self — all the parts of ourselves we have pushed out of our consciousness and refused to know.”

Or, as the oracular Barney has it:

“The brightest light brings the deepest shadow.”

Several of the book’s characters venture into the Light Maze and encounter a “sort of dark mass of corruption” within it, but if this is their own darkness, called into relief by the brighter light of the maze, it’s undifferentiated from character to character. Every character’s darkness is the same, and I didn’t get the sense that each character was confronting something personal, except that they would feel a certain familiarity alongside the fear and repugnance. Like the rest of the book’s fantasy elements, this darkness is just a little bit too abstract, and it needs North’s characters to (as they do on a couple of occasions) sit down and lay out what it all means, rather than allowing the fantasy to speak for itself.

It’s perhaps unfair to make this criticism of a YA book, but I can’t help comparing it to other, similar books of the same era. Le Guin’s Threshold, Garner’s Red Shift, or Mayne’s A Game of Dark, for instance, deal with far more powerful and personal forces of darkness. It’s that sense of a very real-seeming, often gritty and class-conscious reality coming up against meaningful fantasy that I like in the era’s YA, and The Light Maze doesn’t quite have it, though it does feel as though it’s on the edge of the same territory. The Light Maze, I’d say, could stand alongside Susan Cooper’s Blytonesque Over Sea, Under Stone, but not its sequel, the much more realistic (in terms of characters and setting) The Dark is Rising. One of the main things The Light Maze is about, though, is the avoidance of extremes — how the search for higher states, as with Esmeralda’s “wonder, joy, bliss”, inevitably calls up a corresponding darkness — so, North’s lightness of touch may well have been an intentional part of what she was trying to say.

I first heard about Joan North from Matthew David Surridge’s post at Black Gate, which is well worth a read.