When Diane and I were preparing for our formal interview with Dr. John Tepper Marlin, son of Hilda van Stockum, he told us that people would often remark to his mother that she had “such interesting children.” Marlin said that his mother always chuckled at that remark because she thought all children were interesting, but that most parents don’t listen much. Hilda was an astute observer of people, and children in particular. And John said that his mother was always listening to people, and afterward scribbling down detailed notes about their stories. All of her books were born out of overheard conversations, anecdotes from letters, and stories that people would tell her while with her.
The Irish books (Cottage at Bantry Bay, Francie on the Run, and Pegeen) are based on the stories of an Irish friend. The Winged Watchman was based on the experiences of her family in the Dutch resistance during WWII. The Borrowed House is based on the experience of someone who is still alive and cannot be named. And, The Mitchells series is largely autobiographical of the Marlin family during WWII, and their subsequent years in Canada. In this review, we will cover the first of the Irish books, Cottage at Bantry Bay.
Don’t make the mistake I made. I read Pegeen first (Silly, Sara). I don’t know why I was confused, but I was. I did the same thing with Canadian Summer and Friendly Gables. This is not a paid commercial, but it is a good time to mention that Biblioguides has all of the books . . . in order . . . you know . . . you could do what I didn’t do, and just check there before you blunder into reading out of order. That said, a testament to Hilda’s excellent writing is that I didn’t even know I read them out of order until I reached for the “next” book and realized the mistake. Since all are more or less collections of moments and vignettes, they are all sort of stand-alone stories. But reading them in order will enrich your reading experience.
“. . . Mother said it was bedtime and carried Francie into the other room, to his great disgust. Liam followed meekly. Though much stronger than his brother, his spirit was gentle. Francie, the delicate one, had the heart of a lion. Brigid and Michael sat up a little longer chatting with their father. Then it was their turn, and when they had said their prayers and were tucked under, Mother kissed them and drew the curtains. Outside the rain still fell in long silver streaks; the children heard its pitter-patter on the roof and fell asleep,” page 23.
When Hilda van Stockum was twelve years old, her family moved from Holland to Ireland. While living there, Hilda fell in love with her brother’s American friend, Ervin Ross Marlin and married him in 1932. Two years later she published her first book, A Day On Skates, in order to fund her passage from Ireland to America where she and Ervin would start their family. In 1938, while in the throes of having and caring for babies, Hilda wrote the first of her Irish books, The Cottage at Bantry Bay. This delightful collection of vignettes is woven together into an endearing story of Irish family life that is lovely for family read aloud. Just like Hilda’s other books, these are also based on true stories, and illustrated by the author.
The Cottage at Bantry Bay is set in Northern Ireland (County Cork) in what was then modern time (the 1920s/30s). The O’Sullivan family has a small farm and four children: Michael, Brigid, and twin brothers Liam and Francie. Francie (Frances) has a lame foot but, as the paragraph above states, the heart of a lion. In classic Hilda style, there is no one main character, but the family itself is at the heart of the story.
The story opens with Brigid and Mother tending to the home fires while the twins are outside, in a puddle, playing Sinn Fein vs. Sassenach (Irish rebels vs. English occupiers). The illustrations and the tone invite us into a cozy happy family scene. But, as they look up, they see that something is wrong as Michael is helping Father who is hobbling down the lane. While tending to the farm, Father stepped into a rabbit hole and sprained his ankle. And, of course, Father was supposed to walk to the other side of the mountain tomorrow to sell their donkey.
From there, the story unfolds with a series of vignettes that flow in and out of each other through the family hearth. Whether it is the story of rescuing a lost dog (who becomes an exciting and hilarious member of the family), or the stories that Father and their friend Paddy tell about Ireland, or the discovery of treasure, these stories are sure to delight everyone, and can easily be read aloud a chapter or two at a time.
This book is beautiful and sometimes funny. Pegeen (the final book in the Irish trilogy) is incredibly funny and also beautiful. More to come soon about Francie on the Run and Pegeen.
Don’t miss our interview with John Tepper Marlin on Wednesday, August 31st! You can find it in the Plumfield Moms podcast or here.