It’s Reading Wales 2023 and this is my second read for the Month, read on holiday in Southern Spain, somewhat oddly, although we were staying in quite a working-class area. I bought this especially for the challenge as I’d agreed with Mallika from Literary Potpourri that we would do a buddy read of it (we both read it at the same time and are sharing each other’s reviews but didn’t discuss it separately to these, mainly for reasons of my holiday!). A classic of working-class literature, it reminded me in parts of “The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists” and, while distressing quite a lot of the time, is very well worth reading. Here is Mallika from Literary Potpourri’s review, do go and visit it, too! Do also visit Brona’s interesting piece about the controversies around Llewellyn’s claimed heritage and knowledge/experience (I’m still counting this for Dewithon as it’s set in Wales …).

Richard Llewellyn – “How Green was my Valley”

(13 January 2023, The Heath Bookshop)

In the evening after we had finished tea we all sat on the grass on horse cloths and sang hymns and songs, and we had prizes for the best. Indeed if I was not chosen again for the best voice among the small boys. There is pleased my father was. I will never forget the way he looked when Mr Prosser, St. Bedwas, gave me the sweets.

Singing was in my father as sight is in the eye. Always after that he called me the family soloist. That night he held my hand tight all the way home, with my mother on his other side, and my sisters behind us. (p. 19)

We meet Huw Morgan as a small boy, the youngest in his family, his brothers and sisters settling (or not) into their roles, and we follow him into his late teens; however, his story is being written from much later life, with the horror of a pit slag heap that’s slipped pressing and pressing onto the little house where he was raised and lives now. That gives a feeling of only barely repressed menace throughout the whole book, not particularly needed when everyone is going down badly maintained pits, struggling against the mine owners or struggling at school against bullies and anti-Welsh sentiment.

Huw has a temper on him and inflicts some damage on people, but that’s seen, I think, to not in the end help, as he’s still stuck where he started out, alone and looking back at the green grass of his youth, now obscured by slag heaps (this book was published in 1939, long before the horror of Aberfan; now the Valleys have been greened again by various initiatives, whether or not that will help the social and economic deprivation they have experienced).

There is a feeling of progressive doom about the whole book, as Huw’s siblings push against their constraints and end up leaving, his sister makes a choice of husband that may not be the best and Huw’s chance to escape may not be taken up. There are also some absolutely brutal scenes, especially when the community seeks justice for the assault and death of a child, and the passages where a long strike brings starvation to the people. Huw’s father is the centre of his life, even though he fundamentally disagrees with the actions of his own sons towards unionising, and, appropriate for a review published on Mother’s Day, you can only feel sorry for his poor mother, though she has her own flashes of temper and giddiness, as she is forced to watch her children leave, not able to understand the map of their travels she’s shown.

gbThere are flashes of positivity and possibility, with the local clergyman providing education in books, morals and carpentry, and humour, especially with the bad boys, Dai and Cyfartha, who wreak havoc and revenge wherever they go (but are revealed to be devoted and loving friends (a couple?) as the story goes on). And there are of course beautiful descriptions and all done in a Welsh way of speaking which is done beautifully and not clumsily, feels authentic and was probably quite surprising at the time. As it winds to its conclusion, it feels both inevitable and gutting: a book you have to sit with for a while after finishing it.

Both a classic story of coming of age and an impassioned appeal against capitalism, it’s an absorbing read that I am happy to highly recommend

This was Book 2 read for Reading Wales 2023.