Author: Richard Llewellyn
The classic, bestselling novel from 1940, Richard Llewellyn’s novel, How Green Was My Valley, chronicles the lives of a respectable coal mining family in Wales during the reign of Queen Victoria. Starting with an idyllic life, industrialism and the greed of companies and their owners gives rise to the obstinacy of unions and the violence of betrayed peoples. As Huw, the youngest son of the family, is growing up, he watches the transition. A coming of age novel, a loss of innocence story, and a transition of eras story, How Green Was My Valley captures the coziness and the tumult of everyday living, developing characters and essential life struggles in a subtle yet vivid way.
A novel referred to by some as a “sleeper,” Huw’s story begins with observation of events and betrayals within his own family that even he cannot understand. While the Morgans are essentially good, they are fallible. Huw’s father, Gwilym, projects the decency of an early time, staying devoted to a coal company cheating its workers. Meanwhile, the elder sons in the family, now old enough to work in the mines themselves, seek revolution and overthrow of the old ways, demanding fairness at the steep price of their own families. An outsider to all of these events, Huw watches from his sick-bed, recovering from an injury and allowing his curiosity about the mysteries of adult life to consume his waking hours.
When Mr. Gruffydd, the new preacher, arrives at the village, his passionate yet calm manners provide a stable cement and an idol for Huw. As time progresses, Huw grows older and begins to wonder about the secret elements of adult life. Set aside from his family by his ability to do well in education, Huw craves nothing more than answers to the questions he’s not allowed to ask and a life following in his father’s footsteps, right down to the mine. Meanwhile, slag corrupts the valley and the greenness of life seeps away as Huw’s innocence is slowly lost.
A novel filled with unique protagonists, How Green Was My Valley is most surprising for the relatable manner in which it depicts people. The Morgans are all, more or less, good people living decent lives: and yet there are taints. There are relationship difficulties, secrets, the wildness of youth, and the devastation of decisions that cannot be undone. Even when the characters act in a manner readers don’t like, we still love them and feel for them as actual people. This is especially true of Huw, Mr. Gruffydd, and Bronwen – my three favorite characters and the central figures in the unfolding story of Huw’s youth and decisions.
Growing up with curiosity, the novel deals with the (then) sensitive subject of sex. Sometimes this appears in strange ways – vague hints early on regarding Owen’s fiancé for instance, but gradually as Huw’s knowledge and understanding grows, so do the stakes of the world around him. Failed love affairs, the pretensions of society, the harshness of the church, and the temptation of freedom all combine in Huw to echo emotions with which we are all familiar. Add to this the backdrop of economic and environmental upheaval, and the “sleeper” of a novel unwinds itself to deliver some surprising twists.
Written in 1939 and listed as a bestseller in 1940, How Green Was My Valley spawned three sequels (Up Into the Singing Mountains
I listened to the audio book edition, read by Ralph Cosham, one of my personal favorite narrators. Considering the spelling of the Welsh names, the audio book was a good choice, allowing me to hear the words and intonations and also the beauty of the people and place names. Cosham has a wise, deep timber of voice that fits with the essence of recollection as an adult narrator brings childhood alive and all the events that eventually lead him to leave the blackened, slag covered valley.
A saga of growing up, How Green Was My Valley captures the traumas and joys of life, examining perceptions, family ties, and the meaning of home. Highly recommended.