Friday, June 4, 2021

The Apple Stone, a fantasy by Nicholas Stuart Gray

Title: The Apple Stone
Author: Nicholas Stuart Gray
Illustrator: Charles Keeping
Publication: Meredith Press, hardcover, 1969 (originally published 1965)
Genre: Juvenile fantasy
Setting: Great Britain, 20th century
Description: It was an odd-looking apple – dull yellow and crinkled all over with age – but it had a nice smell. And, as they soon learned, that’s not all it had.

“It’s magic,” said Missie. The others – her older brother Jeremy, her sister Jo, and their cousins, Douglas and Nigel – scoffed.

BUT . . . “A very sensible thing to say,” said the apple stone, and went on to admit modestly that “One touch from me animates the inanimate.”

As good as its word, the apple stone, with its remarkable and sometimes dangerous talent, led the five of them into one incredible adventure after another with things that were never meant to be alive: a leopard-skin rug, a model rocket ship, and a bookend in the shape of an elephant, to mention only a few.

This is not just a fantasy but also a family story highlighting three quirky siblings and their nonstop quarreling cousins.

My Impression: I found this book at the children’s library many years ago and soon had read all four books on its shelves – The Apple Stone, Grimbold’s Other World, Over the Hills to Fabylon, and Mainly in Moonlight (which is a short story collection) – and reread them more than once over the years. I found The Seventh Swan and Down in the Cellar much later, and am lucky now to have secured copies of all six. Rereading The Apple Stone as an adult reveals even more charm and humor than I appreciated as a child but I certainly enjoyed it then. I now see the influence of E. Nesbit whose books Gray obviously grew up enjoying but I find him much more amusing and his acknowledgment of the ways families bicker and unexpectedly switch sides in arguments is very realistic. 

Narrator Jeremy is an Oswald Bastable character with the weight of being the eldest on his shoulders and the diffidence of an aspiring writer. The children are actually a lot like those in Down in the Cellar with the addition of two zany cousins, one a Macdonald and one a Campbell, always arguing but usually refraining from using the word that prompts mayhem and physical warfare: massacre (at ten, I am sure I had no idea what was going on here, unless I asked my mother, an omniscient librarian long before she got her degree and became one in fact).

As in Nesbit or Edward Eager’s books, the children recklessly use the apple stone’s magic with whimsical or sometimes outright dangerous results; it gets heavier with each use, which results in accidental use. I remembered the terror of a feather boa that becomes a menacing snake threatening eight-year-old Missie but my two favorite episodes involve a visit from Guy Fawkes (Nesbit inspired my interest early) and bringing to life a stone crusader in the village church:
“You look to hear tales of heroism and glory,” said he, “the victory of the brave and good against the bad barbarians. No war is quite like that. And the sort with which I was embroiled was far otherwise, I do assure you.”

“You spoke as though you liked the Saracens,” said Jo.

“And so I did.”

“But weren’t they cruel and evil?” said Missie, round-eyed with surprise . . . .

“it seems time changes nothing,” said he. “I know how many years have hurried by since my day ended in that time. I know the power you hold that has brought me here, in my shape as I was then. And almost I think that I myself can hear myself speaking as a child again – in terms of war, with good against bad, and always the eternal assumption that ‘we’ are good and ‘they’ are bad. Dear my God in Heaven,” he sighed, “is no lesson ever learned?”

“But – Saracens!” said Douglas.
Gray's books are beloved by those who know them and it is a huge shame that Gray’s books are not only out of print but impossible to find. The Seventh Swan is the easiest to find because it was published in paperback. Check out some of the prices for The Apple Stone if you want to give yourself sticker-shock!
UK edition
Source: Personal copy.  The description above is from the dust jacket, helpfully pasted into my ex-library copy.

Another Nicholas Stuart Gray reviewDown in the Cellar


Lark said...

Fun! I love these kind of children's fantasy books, probably because I was such a fan of Nesbit and Eager growing up. :)

Lex @ Lexlingua said...

Edward Eager! Half Magic was one of my favorites, and here's a book that sounds delightfully similar. I wish I'd discovered this as a kid, though as you mentioned, it seems the book's charm is more obvious when older. :) I should read this one, and re-read Half Magic.

Katrina said...

I didn't read his books as a child and wonder if I will ever now as they're so eye-wateringly expensive. I'll look out for them in secondhand bookshops as you never know your luck! I love the Nesbit books though.

Lory said...

This kind of beloved but way too expensive book seems definitely due for a reprint! I wonder if NYRB children's classics would be interested.