Title: How Green Was My Valley
Author: Richard Llewellyn
Publication Date: 1939
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library
Plot Summary from Goodreads:
Huw Morgan, about to leave home forever, reminisces about the golden days of his youth, when South Wales still prospered and coal dust had not yet blackened the valley. Llewellyn's characters fight, love, laugh, and cry, creating an indelible portrait of a people.
I picked up this book because I needed a novel set in Wales for last month's Around the World in 12 Books Challenge. I was pretty excited to read about Wales, because my husband is 100% Welsh (or at least he thinks so...maybe some French Canadian in there? But mostly Welsh). And the only thing he has ever been able to tell me about the Welsh is that they are known for ditch digging. I suspect that's about as accurate as saying my Irish ancestors are only known for being hungry for potatoes. Ah, stereotypes!
When I finished this book, I turned to my husband and said, "You should read this. It would make you feel proud to be Welsh." Because seriously, what an epic, spirited portrayal of South Wales in the late 1800's. This is easily one of the better classics that I've read in a LONG time.
Now, when I say this book would fill you with Welsh pride, I don't mean that everything in it is happy. OH NO. This book has tons of sads and feels. The description above doesn't tell you much, but Huw is the youngest of six brothers, and he also has three sisters to boot. The Morgans live in a valley of South Wales and work primarily as coal miners. (Ditch digging, almost?) The book begins with Huw as an adult, leaving his family home, but you don't find out why just yet. Nope, because Huw then backtracks to when he was just a little boy (age six, I believe) and begins to tell us the story of his upbringing.
I love a well-done coming-of-age novel, and I daresay that Huw Morgan might be tied for my favorite coming-of-age character (alongside Francie Nolan of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn). Llewellyn did an absolutely terrific job illustrating how Huw grows physically and emotionally throughout his life. When the story opens, he's just an innocent kid living in pretty prosperous times. But as the novel progresses, he faces his fair share of hard knocks (as does his family), and he matures before your eyes. Llewellyn does this in such a way that the progression is evenly-paced, but not painfully slow (as can happen with some epic stories). I was never, ever bored while reading this novel, and I found myself rooting for Huw all along the way.
Huw was obviously my favorite character, but the others in the novel became near and dear to my heart as well. Each of Huw's MANY siblings had a distinct personality and passion that came through loud and clear. For example, his sister Angharad, who became one of the best female characters in the history of ever when she told off a male suitor with this line:
"I am Angharad Morgan," she said, and the river never ran colder. "Go to hell."
YOU SING IT, SISTER!! PREACH!
And two of his friends (Dai Bando and Cyfartha) were probably my favorite side characters, because they were HILARIOUS. (There are some really great one-liners in this book, which is not something I normally say about a classic.) Honestly, the entire village of people around the Morgans was an amazing, cohesive unit that puts modern day neighborhood friendships to shame. The comraderie and support among all of the characters was inspiring, and a big reason why I told my husband that this book would make him proud to be Welsh.
But one of the best characters of all? WALES! And you're thinking, wait, that's the setting. EXACTLY. Llewellyn basically turns this South Wales valley into a character all its own. It's not just the descriptions of the picturesque mountains or the ever-changing winds, but the way that the setting plays a crucial role in many of the important events of the characters' lives. This novel couldn't be set anywhere else and be able to tell the same story.
I haven't read a real epic classic in a while, mostly because Middlemarch scared me off a couple of years ago. How Green Was My Valley was my first foray back into that territory, and I am not sorry. This is a truly fantastic book and it's going on my favorites shelf. READ IT!
Other reviews of How Green Was My Valley:
Impressions In Ink
Book Light Graveyard
Do you have a favorite classic? And have you ever visited Wales? Because now I want to go to there.