Wednesday, March 3, 2010
The Windy Hill, by Cornelia Meigs
Oliver and his sister Janet, both young teens, have been sent for the Summer to visit their cousin Jasper on his large estate in the country. As the book starts off, Oliver is walking into town to catch the train. Jasper has arranged for him to meet his cousin Eleanor, and he has decided with a name like that, she must be a stern, disapproving, boring girl and he isn't willing to submit to the introduction. On his way there, he comes across a man tending beehives (who he names "the Beeman") and his daughter Polly. He stops briefly to assist, and is rewarded with a story. Oliver becomes so entranced by this tale of the region's ancient Indian inhabitants that by the time he comes out of his reverie, he's missed his train and must return to the estate.
Janet is frustrated with her brother's rudeness, but can't help but sympathize. Cousin Jasper has hardly been a good host. He's sullen and withdrawn, and mostly leaves the two siblings to their own devices. Oliver tells Janet about the Beeman and his stories, and hopes to bring her back there to visit and hear the stories for herself.
On a subsequent visit, the cousins come across Anthony Crawford, a rude and angry man who also lives on the property. He tells Oliver that he lives just on the other side of Jasper's garden wall, and hints at an unsettled debt between himself and Cousin Jasper. Out of curiosity, Oliver peeks over the garden wall and sees what was once a lovely house, but now in horrible disrepair. It's revealed at about this time that Crawford is trying to extort something from Jasper, which is the cause of his moodiness and anxiety.
Oliver and Janet continue to visit the Beeman and Polly and listen to stories about the settlers of the area centered around "The Windy Hill" where they live- a place where the wind rustles the leaves of the trees, even when the air is still elsewhere in the valley. The hill also provides a great view of a manmade lake, which is separated from the valley by a dyke to allow the tenant farmers access to the fertile land. However, there are concerns that the walls are falling into disrepair. Eventually, Crawford turns out a tenant farmer on his property for being slightly behind in his rent, which precipitates a chain of events.
As Crawford continues to threaten Jasper, a wild rainstorm enters the valley. Concerned for the integrity of the dyke, Oliver and Janet rush out to see that it is failing, and the tenant farmer is no longer there to ensure its safety. Crawford, realizing the gravity of the situation, comes to Jasper because he has nowhere else to turn. We learn at this time (although really, it was a surprise only to Oliver and not the reader by now) that the Beeman and Polly are actually Oliver's relatives (Polly being the dreaded Eleanor). The Beeman's stories are actually true tales of their ancestors, and Crawford, being marginally related and aware of Jasper's weaknesses, had taken advantage of their relation to try to extort property and valuable family heirlooms. Of course, he turns over a new leaf and vows to become a better man if they can just fix the dyke, which they do, and live happily ever after as a functional and healthy family. Or something.
Wow, talk about pat endings. Ridiculously pat. Also, it seems a rather quick change of heart for Anthony Crawford, who has established himself as a complete jerk for the first 95% of the book. Additionally, these stories of the Beeman's, while captivating to Oliver and Janet, frankly bored me stiff, and went on for tens of pages. With no context for those stories, the plots of which played very little role in the main story, they were painful and distracting. I had to try this one three times to finish it and found it difficult each time. Totally skip this one.
I see that a few years later, this same author has another Newbery Honor book. Good gracious, I don't relish the thought of trying that one out!
Full text available from Project Gutenberg here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26537/26537-8.txt