Book Reviews

In The Grip Of Winter by Colin Dann

In the Grip of Winter

In the Grip of Winter by Colin Dann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been picking my way through the Farthing Wood series, driven by an urge to revisit these emotionally scarring books of my childhood. Though somebody like Richard Adams will always have the crown of accidentally emotionally traumatising children (Plague Dogs! General Woundwort! the! horror!), books like The Fox Cub Bold are right up there with them. This isn’t a situation where everything always ends up well. Dann was a naturalist and wrote from experience and although the Farthing Wood animals remain bound by a vow of mutual friendship, others do not. There’s a blunt honesty to these books that even now I am rather fond of.

In The Grip Of Winter is the second book of the series. The animals of Farthing Wood have relocated to White Deer Nature Reserve, a space of safety and sanctuary. Everything is going well until winter arrives. It is one of the coldest and hardest winters on record and the animals suffer. Not only do they have to deal with the fierce temperatures and the lack of food that brings, but they also have to face poachers breaking into the park. The poachers are armed with guns, and killing – inevitably – occurs. It’s down to the wiles of Fox, supported ably by Vixen, to sort things out…

Upon rereading this, I had quite the memory realisation. When I was a child, I had an intermittent cast of imaginary friends that would join us on car journeys, running along the side of the road at the same pace of the car. I don’t think I ever imagined them to anybody but there was White Rabbit, White Horse, White Tiger and – you get the picture. But I realised that this naming comes from the Farthing Wood books – a series where animals are mainly named things like Hare, and Ginger Cat, and Tawny Owl until mates, children and friends of the same species turn up and start to complicate things. My adult feminist side kicks slightly at Whistler’s mate – a heron, so named because of a hole in his wing – being called Whistler’s mate throughout this book but that’s a small point to pick.

In The Grip of Winter is an impressive piece of work and functions as an honest and good introduction to stories about animals for young readers. It feels different to much of today’s children’s literature and I suspect much of this comes from Dann’s naming style – Fox, Vixen, Kestrel etc – but also from his matter of fact knowledge about the natural world. The domestic animals remain domestic, the wild – wild. The biggeranimals eat the smaller (though, as I say, the Farthing Wood creatures abstain from eating each other) and Simba, we eat the antelopes and then we turn into grass and the antelopes eat the grass and it’s the circle of life.

I don’t think we write children’s books like this any more, and I suspect there’s a space in the world for a reprint of at least the first in the series. But, for now, I’ll continue picking them up when I find them in the charity bookshops and continue to savour this intriguing, occasionally brutal, and somewhat rather fascinating series.

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Everything else

An esoteric and distinctly biased list of 50 children’s books you probably really should read (part three)

The Last Unicorn – Peter S. Beagle

I came to this after watching the amazing animated film (I’m ALIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIVE) and fell in love. It’s a fantasy classic that tells the story of the last unicorn and her journey to find all the others of her kind. It shifts from pantomine, to pathos, to heart-breaking. Beautiful.

Similar to : the Last Unicorn movie (which is still a treat but is very scary in places so be warned if you watch it with littlies)

The Chalet School in Exile – Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Although this is a few titles on in the series, it is one of the best pieces of wartime children’s literature you will ever read. Brent-Dyer’s attitude and treatment of the Nazis remains stunning and her invention of the Peace League as a way for women to fight war is ideologically miles ahead of its time. Amazing, thought-provoking book. (Ignore the hideous cover!)

Similar to : the rest of the Chalet School series. Start with The School at the Chalet.

Millions – Frank Cottrell Boyce

A ridiculously stunning book, Millions is the one book I would have loved to have written. Brothers Anthony and Damien have a whole shedload of money fall into their hands after witnessing a train robbery. Trouble is, they only have days to spend it because Britain is about to join the Euro and the money they’ve found is all in pounds. This book is very very perfect and Damien is an amazing character.

Similar to : Nothing. Perfect. Go read it.

The Animals of Farthing Wood – Colin Dann

Dann was a keen naturalist and it shows in this tale of animals banding together to find themselves a new home after their current is threatened by the encroachment of man. Writing the animals as Fox, Vixen, Badger etc, Dann carefully avoids sentiment and over anthropomorphising and creates a thrilling animal saga.

Similar to : Tarka the Otter

The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

This was originally published in serial form and it shows. There’s a gorgeous sense of readability to it, the pacing is brilliant and it remains a classic of its time. There’s swords, swash-buckling, derring-do and some amazing intrigue going on. Last month I went to a Musketeer festival in the South-West of France where people sauntered around the centre of the village and slapped their thigh a lot and called for beer. It was amazing and this book is wholly to blame for that (and also for my obsession with ‘sturdy Gascon ponies’)

Similar to : The Man in the Iron Mask

The Silver Brumby – Elyne Mitchell 

The Silver Brumby is one of the richest books I know. Set in the wilds of the Australian outback, it is the story of Thowra – the silver brumby. The first of a massive (and gorgeous) series that sings with love for the landscape it is set in, it’s a treat for horse-lovers that remains beyond compare.

Similar to : Bambi

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

An intensely vivid and personal graphic novel, this is the autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, a girl growing up in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution. Full of a witty, and sharp sense of humour, and also a sardonic self-reflection on life, this book is superb.

Similar to : the film version – also very very brilliant.

Black Beauty – Anna Sewell

Nominally a book about a horses life, this proto-animal rights book remains superb and relevant to today. There’s also a rite of passage in it that every reader must go through – frankly, if you don’t weep buckets when XXXXXX XXXXXX then I’m going to come and have a word.

Similar to: Watership Down

Macbeth – William Shakespeare

Shakespeare gets a bad rap sometimes and it’s not fair. This play is brilliant. There’s death, witches, ghosts, trees and come-uppance(s) a plenty. I love this play and it is very much worth reading. Take the lines out of the book and play with the language. I still love the witches parts for example.

Similar to : The Duchess of Malfi (but there are MAJOR adult themes in that one so be warned).

Ballet Shoes – Noel Streatfield

Streatfield wrote a ton of stuff about children on the stage and exploring alternative avenues of fulfilment (ice-skating, circus(ing) etc). This is one of her best-loved and it’s endured for a reason. The story of Pauline, Petrova and Posy remains engaging, warm and very very lovely.

Similar to : Sadler’s Wells