Author: Nancy Bond
Publication: Atheneum, hardcover, 1976
Genre: Juvenile fantasy
Setting: WalesStuckinaBook and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, in which bloggers are invited to read and review books that were published in a chosen year.
Description: Fifteen-year-old Jen Morgan lost her mother nearly a year ago and her family has not recovered. In the fall, her father brought her younger siblings, Peter and Becky, with him from Western Massachusetts to Wales where he will teach for a year at the University of Aberystwyth, hoping the change of scene will help everyone cope. When Jen joins them for her Christmas break, she realizes her family is not in good shape. Her father spends all his time in his university office, ignoring his children. Peter is miserable and friendless while Becky has made friends but is worried about everyone else. Jen is taken aback by the frigid house and by the change in her previously outgoing brother. He is sullen and confrontational, and – although she doesn’t learn this immediately – he has become obsessed by a metal key he found which is causing him to have visions of Taliesin, the 6th-century Welsh bard, that he is unwilling to reveal to anyone in case they think he is crazy or (perhaps worse) make him turn over the key to a museum. Jen stays with her family in Wales instead of returning to high school in the United States but, while her presence helps the Morgans acclimate, it is the shared experience with the mysterious key and its past that ultimately brings the family together.My Impression: This is a beautifully written and extremely atmospheric novel that takes an ordinary family suffering from loss and puts them down in a completely strange environment to sink or stagger. Bond herself studied at Aberystwyth so her depiction of the Morgans’ painful adjustment to a house without heat, a small town with limited shopping, and no car with which to escape rings true. However, she also conveys the history and the sense of community that eventually includes the newcomers. There are no magical solutions to the loss of a parent, and it is painful to witness Peter’s desperate hope that Jen’s arrival will help their father realize the situation is impossible and they should return home – instead, she scolds him for being so negative and does not try to understand his unhappiness; of course, she has challenges of her own.
As I have mentioned previously, the Margaret K. McElderry imprint at Atheneum was pretty much a guarantee of a great book when I was growing up and included many of the authors I admired, Ruth Arthur, Susan Cooper, Margaret Mahy, and my favorite of Bond’s books, Another Shore. I was so entranced by that book I visited Fort Louisbourg in Nova Scotia, where it is set, and sent the author a postcard (I hope she appreciated the gesture and didn’t think I was a stalker). A String in the Harp was recognized as being exceptional when it was published. It received a Newbery Honor award (someone else reviewed Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor was the winner that year) and also won a Welsh award, the Tir na n-Og. My first edition hardcover even has a Y like the harp key embossed on the cover under the dust jacket - a nice touch.
Source: Personal copy
Peter was beginning to regret having shown the Key. It wasn’t going to work, but he had to try now he’d started. “I told you it wasn’t a dream. It came from this.”The conversation wakes up their father but he just shoos them to bed, isolated in his own sorrow. I found David Morgan’s neglect of his unhappy children very sad. Becky emerges as the glue in the family, accumulating an assortment of friends but also listening to Peter and being willing to believe his visions are real. Bond also excels at minor characters like Mrs. Davies next door who provides overdone roasts and soggy vegetables for the Morgans and Dr. Rhys, the history scholar at the university who is more approachable than the children’s father.
Jen stared at him in disbelief.
“It’s happened before, several times when I wasn’t even in bed. I’ve seen things and I don’t know why.”
“Oh, boy,” said Jen. “You’ve got a good story this time, Peter.”
He was angry. “You asked and I’ve tried to tell you. If you won’t believe me, I can’t help it but you could try.”
|The Gates to the Louisbourg Fortress|
Source: Personal copy