The Cloud Forest by Joan North

Children’s Book Club HB, 1965

Published in 1965, The Cloud Forest wasn’t North’s first book — that was the now impossible-to-find-anywhere Emperor of the Moon, from nine years before — but it’s the start of her short run of three gently mystical fantasies for pre-teens (the others being The Whirling Shapes and The Light Maze). The “Cloud Forest” of the title is a purely white otherworld one of the two protagonists, twelve year old Andrew Badger, slips into on occasion, and which he comes to learn exists inside the white gemstone of the Annerlie Ring, which he’s guided to find one night. Andrew is an orphan, currently living with his Aunt Badger, the matron of a girl’s school. She’s a somewhat Dickensian guardian, who discourages the boy from making friends with any of the pupils of the school he lives in, thwarts his attempts to have a night-light to stave off nightmares, and generally does her best to show him as little care as she can (“Most illness is pure self-indulgence. If you want to be well, you are well,” she says, in response to his being bed-bound with flu).

Andrew does find a friend, though, in the unconventional Ronnie Peters, an only child who “had always been so heavily wrapped up and protected from the cruel world (which she longed passionately to get at)” that she’s developed a no-nonsense approach to simply doing whatever she wants. As the book opens, she’s decided to bury a treasure map somewhere in the school grounds (even though she doesn’t have any actual treasure — the map itself will become the treasure to another map she’s then going to draw up), and so is present when Andrew finds the Annerlie Ring.

The current members of the Annerlie family live nearby at Annerlie Hall: Raymond Annerlie, virtually comatose since the death of his brother, brother’s wife and baby when their car went into a river, and Sir Rachet Annerlie, a neuro-psychologist who runs the expensive Annerlie Clinic. Researching their history, Ronnie finds mention of the mystical ring, which gives “creative authority to the imagination, if the imagining be sufficiently disinterested and freed from all attachment to results,” and “in its presence even the counterfeit may become real.” (When the normally timid Andrew pretends to be brave, for instance, he finds he actually is brave.) Even so, the ring’s power is “but the Symbol and Shadow of a greater truth.”

It turns out that Sir Rachet Annerlie desperately wants the ring. He’s interested in “the creating of True Power and the Knowledge of How to Use it”, and believes that, with the ring, “I can go to the heart of reality.” To this end, he hosts a series of self-improvement classes of a kind with vague but supposedly empowering beliefs. Andrew is dragged along to one by his aunt, and:

“He was urged to take an Active, Positive Attitude to Life, not to shrink from Having Opinions and expressing them as forcibly as he could, to beware of idleness and an empty mind; not to indulge in doubts and self-questionings and, above all, to realise the great power of DESIRE.”

Their outward message is: “You can all have what you want, if you want it deeply enough, and if you will it with all your heart.” But in fact the classes are simply a way of recruiting people whose will is weak enough that they can be hypnotised into providing a power source for Sir Rachet’s rather more Black Magical practices, focused on the recovery and ownership of the Annerlie Ring.

Illustration by Carol Everest

Aside from the fun adventure and light comedy, the thing I find most interesting about North’s books is her religious attitude. As in the other book of hers I reviewed (The Light Maze), she presents us with a mystical realm where various truths are made plain — here, that we have a True Self that may be lost to the domination of others, and that although imagination may have a magical power, it requires a certain disinterestedness in worldly gains to use it — meanwhile satirising a group of supposedly mystical-minded people who in fact have a power-centred or gains-oriented approach to the supernatural. The fact that Ronnie and Andrew’s main adult helper in The Cloud Forest is the Reverend Arbuthnot says something, perhaps, about where North’s own beliefs lie, but hers is not an entirely traditional Christianity: Arbuthnot, who accepts the children’s stories about the powers of the Annerlie Ring, admits it might be best not to inform the Bishop about such things. His own attitude to Sir Rachet’s classes implies that his — like North’s, I assume — is a somewhat Buddhistic or Eastern-tinged version of Christianity, that nevertheless manages to sound all the more English for it:

“All this constant wishing and desiring—this refusal to let the mind be at rest! It’s in the stillness and quietness that the true creative things happen.”

Illustration by Carol Everest

Mind you, as I’ve said before in this blog, fantasies are often about power, and in so many of them the answer is not learning to use power but deciding to renounce it (as with, most notably, that rather more famous Ring of Power, from Tolkien).

North’s adventures inevitably feel a bit light in contrast with the sort of teen-aimed YA fiction I like, which came only five or so years later, in the works of Alan Garner, John Gordon, William Rayner, Penelope Lively, and others, but the Jungian/Buddhist/lightly Christian form of mysticism that informs her fantasies feels very much both of its time (a 1960s moving towards New Age beliefs), and a matter of conviction on the author’s part.


Andra by Louise Lawrence

1971 UK HB, art by Antony Maitland

Like the first Louise Lawrence book I read (1974’s The Wyndcliffe), I bought Andra (1971) because of the wonderful Antony Maitland cover to its UK first edition. But whereas The Wyndcliffe proved equal to both its cover and my expectations of it as a slice of vintage 70s British YA folk-fantasy, the best thing about Andra remains its cover, and it was mainly interesting to read because it was Lawrence’s first published novel (she wrote four — “very bad”, in her own words — beforehand, apparently).

It’s set 2000 years from now. Our world’s surface is no longer habitable, thanks to a bomb that “swung Earth from her orbit” — the year is now four times as long as ours — “just to end one stupid war and left us with a lump of useless rock”, as the titular heroine puts it. The action takes place in Sub-city One, one of three subterranean redoubts lit and heated entirely by artificial means. (There are a further five cities belonging to the rival nation-state of Uralia, which, ruled as it is by one Gravinski, is clearly a Cold War Russia analog.)

It’s a dull, mechanistic future. Children are separated from their parents at birth and raised by E.D.C.O. (whose initials aren’t explained, as far as I recall, but thinking of it as Education Corporation works), which separates the low IQs from the high, and assigns everyone, on adulthood, with a job and a spouse. People only ever wear the colour assigned to their job, all hair is cut short and, for some reason, everyone is blond-haired and blue-eyed.

1991 PB

Andra, a.k.a. Citizen C/22/33/5, whose age is given as 15 (though this must be our years, not theirs, otherwise she’d be a rebellious teen of 60), is a misfit from the start, classed as low IQ for her resistance to E.D.C.O.’s production-line style of upbringing. Playing hooky one day, she’s caught in an accident that destroys the part of her brain processing eyesight. Normally, she’d be terminated (“The city would not support any person who was not physically faultless”), but one Dr Lascaux takes the opportunity to try an experimental brain graft. The only available brain that will fit is one that belonged to a young man from 1987. The operation proves a success. Andra can see.

But she does so with the added memories of someone from the 20th century, who knows what such things as the sun, trees, fields and animals are. And she feels the hunger to see these things again. (To make matters worse, her hair also turns black and her eyes go brown, to the disgust of the more conservative dwellers of Sub-city One.) Having decided she’s nowhere near as stupid as E.D.C.O. says she is, Dr Lascaux recommends she be assigned to help the three-hundred-year-old Professor Kiroyo in the archives. Yet even this unusual, and perfectly suited, opportunity — Kiroyo is researching how people used to live before the surface became uninhabitable — grates with Andra’s intensely individualistic personality. She starts to display clearly 1960s-inspired signs of unacceptable free-spiritedness, such as growing her hair long and writing pop lyrics, putting her at the centre of a burgeoning youth movement which brings her into conflict with the the city’s autocratic director Shenlyn.

Andra is mostly a pretty straightforward free-spirit-versus-stultifying-society narrative. Everything about Sub-city One is an imaginative teen’s exaggerated idea of what being a dull, conforming adult is all about:

“…in this whole horrible subterranean place there is nothing, not one thing, I would class as beautiful. The language we speak is empty and void of any real meaning. Beauty no longer exists… This is not living… This is merely existing, being kept alive to keep our species alive and feed the demands of Shenlyn and the computers… With every breath I take I long to see the sun.”

It’s saved from being a straight-out dystopia when it turns out that Kiroyo is studying how people used to live so colonists can be sent to the newly-discovered, old-Earth-like Planet 801 in a fleet of rockets — so all the young people singing songs of rebellion and freedom are going to get their wish, freedom from the city and a chance to make their own way of life. But things, of course, don’t go quite so smoothly, thanks to those evil Uralians, and the novel ends on a rather abrupt down-turn.

Perhaps this reflects Lawrence’s own situation at the time. She was in an unhappy marriage (though soon to get out of it) and the dedication, “To my husband, for his tolerance during Andra’s creation”, can’t help, with that knowledge, sound distinctly cold.

There’s plenty of what would play out in Lawrence’s subsequent books, here in raw form. Andra’s brain graft — an alien and destabilising influence that opens her up to a new way of seeing things, bringing with it a host of sometimes dangerous difficulties — recalls the microscopic alien race that infects Jane Bates in The Power of Stars, the ghost that befriends Anna Hennessey in The Wyndcliffe, or the fascination Owen Jones feels for the nature-goddess-like Bronwen in The Earth Witch. There’s also the conflict between the worlds of potentially destructive technology and the raw power of nature, as laid out most clearly in her later book Star Lord.

1976 TV tie-in edition

Andra was adapted for Australian TV in 1976, apparently with such a low budget that shop window dummies were used as extras, and the scenery was mostly large coloured blocks. The novel was republished in 1991 in the US, with Publishers Weekly complaining of “the sometimes puzzling British slang” (I’d love to know what they were referring to) and that Lawrence “seems unsure of her message”, while Kirkus Reviews mentioned “Hackneyed writing, lack of science, and general implausibility”, but ultimately found it worked, “by establishing Andra as the one striving, scornful, yearning person in a world of drones”.

I have to admit I found the writing sometimes unpolished — occasionally a character would just start speaking in a scene when they weren’t previously present, and the point of view in the early chapters slips from one character to another mid-paragraph. I’d say it’s probably best read as part of an interest in Lawrence’s work, as the opening move in a soon-to-improve writing career, rather than as an introduction to it. Those of her later novels that I’ve read are all more interesting, and prove that she was up to taking on some strong themes. (Her post-nuclear Children of the Dust sounds rather Threads-like.)

I’ll still be keeping my hardback copy primarily for the Antony Maitland cover, though.


The Summer Birds, Emma in Winter and Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer

When I read two Penelope Farmer books a few years back (the odd-but-ultimately-impressive A Castle of Bone and the more-adult-than-YA folk fantasy Year King), another that caught my eye was her second, The Summer Birds (1962), about a group of children being given the gift of flight, a theme that’s always grabbed me as it was there in my earliest non-nightmare dreams (and which has remained, thankfully, to see me through a few zombie dreams in later years). It’s taken since then for an affordable copy to pop up on AbeBooks, but once I’d got it, I realised it was only the first in a semi-linked trilogy of books about the Makepeace sisters Charlotte and Emma. So I got copies of Emma in Winter (1966) and Charlotte Sometimes (1969), and started reading.

1987 Dell PB. Art by Chuck Pyle. (This edition has a slightly Americanised text.)

The Summer Birds began life as a short story, though one that proved too long for Farmer’s first book, the collection The China People (1960). It starts with Charlotte (12 years old) and Emma (10 years old), who live in the large but dour Aviary Hall on the South Downs with their distracted and somewhat grumpy grandfather Elijah. One day on the way to school they meet a never-named boy who says he can teach them — their whole class, in fact — to fly. It initially seems a bit day-dreamish, as Charlotte is led out of a school lesson, unnoticed, and spends the day learning to swoop through the air. (There’s a technique to it, somewhat like swimming, and later one of the children finds that wearing flippers helps.) The next day it’s Emma’s turn, and after that the other kids in the class, one by one. Although dreams of flying seem to me to belong to the earliest days of childhood — and of course to the likes of Peter Pan — here it seems to conjure a stage of withdrawal from the muddy, knee-scrapingly grounded play of kids to a slightly more airy-headed state just prior to adolescence:

“There was a feeling of suppressed excitement in the school, mounting each day as another learned. The children became silent and stood in groups or alone, looking at each other sideways with wondering eyes. Could this really happen to others—was it really true? Less and less they played at football and skipping rope in the yard; more and more they put their heads in the sky and watched for birds. Those who did not know, who had not learned, grew worried and lonelier as each day their numbers evaporated like water in the sun. The rest did not fly together yet. It was as if they were waiting for something: waiting in half-shyness for someone else to move. They were self-conscious, like people with songs to sing yet frightened of showing their voice.”

The children go on to spend the entire summer holiday (when it’s not raining) getting together away from parents and other adults so they can fly, and although Farmer brings in a little bit of tension — one of the boys decides to challenge the boy’s leadership and asks never-answered questions about who he is and where he’s come from — the book has more the air of an idyll, an ideal childhood summer that will never be repeated.

1966 Harcourt, Brace & World HB. Cover art by James J Spanfeller

Emma in Winter begins just over two years later, with the younger Makepeace girl finding herself alone for the first time when her sister goes to boarding school. A particularly severe winter descends, like the metaphor for isolation and emotional coldness that it is, and Emma starts to dream of the days when she could fly. In these dreams, she sees one of her classmates, Bobby Fumpkins, struggling to get off the ground in his own attempts to fly. She mocks him, and feels herself somehow being egged on by an unseen presence behind her, a presence that seems to be just a pair of eyes.

(Bobby Fumpkins’ ridiculous surname — sorry, all you Fumpkinses out there — is just one of many from the first book. Charlotte and Emma Makepeace have sensible names, but all the rest of the kids at school are called things like Jammy Hat, Maggot Hobbin, Ginger Apple, Totty Feather, Bandy Scragg, and Scooter Dimple.)

Dell PB

Emma, alone as she’s never been before, at first retreats into a temperamental spikiness befitting the severe winter that’s taken grip of the land, but the dreams of flying she shares with Bobby come to provide a much-needed escape from her isolation (making this book a bit like the connection-through-shared-dreams plot of Marianne Dreams). Unlike The Summer Birds, but just as in A Castle of Bone, the fantasy starts to develop in ways that veer away from the steadily meaningful path it seemed at first to be following. The (perhaps supernaturally) prolonged freeze that works as a perfect metaphor for the emotional chill of loneliness swerves into dreams of moving back through time, as Emma and Bobby’s night-flights take them to the age of the dinosaurs (briefly), then further back to the days before there was any form of life at all. Suddenly, they find themselves poised on the edge of an almost cosmic-horror abyss. As Bobby says, if they carry on:

“There might not be any world, just space, nothing but space… and whatever would happen to us then…”

Perhaps this is meant as a vision of the ultimate loneliness, a world of no people at all — of no world at all — but what of that dark presence, the eyes that Emma felt behind her as she was driven to mock Bobby? That doesn’t quite resolve as clearly, and I finished Emma in Winter feeling it had perhaps missed the simplicity of The Summer Birds by letting its fantastical element stray a little too far for so short a book.

1976 Puffin PB. Art by Janina Ede.

Charlotte Sometimes starts on the elder Makepeace sister’s first day at boarding school (so, a season before Emma in Winter). Going to sleep in a particularly old-fashioned bed, Charlotte wakes to find she’s not Charlotte, but Clare, a girl at the same school but in 1918. For a while, she finds herself in the past and the present on alternating days, but then, when Clare and her younger sister Emily (the same age and personality as Charlotte’s younger sister Emma) are moved to nearby Flintlock Hall and she’s no longer sleeping in the same bed, Charlotte finds herself trapped as Clare in the past. And, while the boarding schools of 1918 and 1963 (as a note on the Wikipedia page for the book successfully argues as the date of its present) aren’t really that different, the world of Flintlock Hall is very much that of the First World War, as it’s a house in mourning for its son, Arthur, who died in the fighting.

(Though Charlotte finds Flintlock Hall very much like her own home of Aviary Hall, which implies you don’t need actual time travel to find yourself oppressed by the weight of the past — a theme that pops up throughout 1960s/1970s British YA.)

Here, the theme is one I felt to be the main driver of the two Farmer books I reviewed previously: personal identity, particularly in situations where its edges become fuzzy or encroached upon. Finding herself living as Clare in the past, Charlotte isn’t sure how much it’s incumbent on her to act as this other girl, to the detriment of her ability to be herself:

“Clare had always been a kind of skin about her, Charlotte thought, containing what she did and said and was; but the skin had thickened imperceptibly the longer she stayed in the past… [and now] it began to thicken more rapidly than ever, pressing that part of her which still thought of itself as Charlotte tighter and smaller, until it lay deep down in her, like a small stone inside a large plum.”

Vintage 2013 PB. Cover by Peter Bailey.

Of the three, Charlotte Sometimes is the better book, going deeper than the simple idyll of The Summer Birds, but staying clear of the confusion of ideas and images in Emma in Winter. Unlike Emma in Winter, Charlotte Sometimes makes no mention of the events in The Summer Birds, which has enabled it to stand on its own as a book, rather than as the third in a sequence. It has, in fact, become Farmer’s most popular work.

As with the previous two Makepeace books, the main character in Charlotte Sometimes is mostly quite passive, but perhaps that’s part of the territory, with so much of childhood/adolescence being about phases you have to live through, rather than things you can do anything about. All three Makepeace books are about the dreamy stages of pre- or early-adolescence, but Charlotte Sometimes is much more about its main character’s sensitivity to the world and people around her, finding her place in a world with a troubled history, among other people with their many forms of unhappiness, and with a growing sense of responsibility. The world it’s set in (an early 1960s boarding school) is now even more remote from us than the period Charlotte travels back to (1918) is from her present, but the book’s still in print, and has taken its place, deservedly I’d say, as a classic of children’s/YA literature.