A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Seacrow Island

I admit, I am totally biased when it comes to books by Astrid Lindgren. I have yet to read one I didn’t like and many of them — The Tomten and the Fox, Emil in the Soup Tureen, The Children of Noisy Village, and Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter, for four — I adore. So I was excited to read “A New Trip to Lindgren Land” by April Bernard in the New York Times Review of Books a few months ago. Not only did I discover a Lindgren book I’d never read, I learned about the New York Review Children’s Collection, which has been re-issuing vintage classics (some familiar, some I've never heard of, and a few decidedly quirky) in attractive, well-crafted new editions.

I couldn’t wait for Christmas so I ordered both Lindren’s Seacrow Island and Mio, My Son, which I was familiar with. And I’m here to report, biased but nonetheless reliably, that Seacrow Island is a delightful read. (If you don’t believe me, read Ms. Bernard. She agrees.)

On the surface, Seacrow Island is a simple story about the adventures of a family at their summer cabin on one of the archipelago islands that dot Sweden’s eastern coast. It belongs to the minor genre of “happy family” literature, as Ms. Bernard calls it, which has fallen somewhat out of vogue in recent decades in favor of more gritty realism.

Lindgren’s writing elevates the story beyond any tendency toward triteness; her “happy family” is never boring. Her ability to portray the emotional lives of a variety of characters gives the story great heart. Even minor characters are alive with distinct personalities, worries, fears, and dreams. We begin with the scatterbrained but loving father, Melker, his sons, Johan, Niklas, and Pelle, and nineteen-year-old Malin, his beautiful daughter, who has run the household since the death of the children’s mother at Pelle’s birth. But the characters don’t stop there. As soon as the Melkers arrive on Seacrow Island, they become part of this small, vigorous community, with adventures involving children being lost at sea in the fog, a variety of pets (including an orphaned seal), a string of suitors interested in Malin (and generally abhorred and tormented by her younger brothers), several small housing disasters inadvertently initiated by Melker, disagreements with a disagreeable neighbor, and the machinations of Tjorven, a six-year-old force of nature with a Saint Bernard. Throughout it all, the intricacies of relationships between friends, family, and the natural world are at play.

One of the most interesting and effective aspects of the book is the skill with which Lindgren moves between viewpoints of the main characters. The shifts are so smooth as to be barely perceptible. One minute Malin is daydreaming about life and love and summer; the next moment, Melker is planning a party and the Saint Bernard is eating cream cake. So it goes on Seacrow Island. The seamlessness between characters creates the illusion of being right there among them, perhaps even as a member of the family. The dialogue is often humorous and surprising. As one unexpected event leads to another, Lindgren’s affection for her characters is constant. When the ending arrived, neat and tidy, I didn’t want it to be over. The company was just so enjoyable.

Like contemporary family stories, there are plenty of problems to be dealt with by our characters. But somehow we know that in the world of Seacrow Island, family, community, and good solid sense will prevail.

For more information about Astrid Lindgren and her work, this is a great place to start.

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