Monday 8 April 2019

HAND AND FOOT by Sally Prue. Reviewed by Adèle Geras

As ever, I begin my review with a disclaimer. In this particular case, two disclaimers. Sally Prue is a good friend of mine, and OUP have published two books of mine in their reading scheme.

But Sally is a wonderful writer and my readers will have to trust me when I say that I wouldn't recommend a book I didn't admire and felt I wanted everyone to read. 

So to this book. It's another belief of mine that far too many good books pass unremarked because they're part of a Reading Scheme and will not be seen in bookshops or supermarkets.  These books are not 'important' by any standard except the one that really matters: will it entertain, involve and also teach its intended readers?  Will children on their way to literacy (the most precious of precious gifts) have a good time? Will they want to know more about what they've learned already? Will they discuss topics raised by the story they've been absorbed in? Does the book stand a chance of winning over those who think reading is somehow uncool? Difficult?  The answers to all of these questions are asked regularly by teachers and educationists, but not by reviewers.

That's why, whenever I come across a book like Hand and Foot
I like to draw it to the attention of readers of this blog.

Sally Prue has written every sort of book. `This one is a historical novel and one of the best things about it is that even though it's both short and for younger readers, Prue doesn't water down the story in any way. She never makes history 'easier' but only simpler for young readers to understand. So we learn about workhouses, night soil collections, innkeepers, governesses, and even flummery  (one of my own favourite legacies from  the 18th century or even earlier.) 

The story concerns the wonderfully-named Gravity Sparrow, who is short and energetic, determined and a singer as well. She has been taken in by a rich family from  her beginnings in the workhouse. I learn from a note in the back that workhouses named their orphaned charges thus: first name a virtue, and second name a bird.  Later in the narrative, Gravity meets someone from her workhouse past called Faithful.

Gravity is a servant in the house where Marianne, a rich and rather cross young girl, lives with her family. Marianne longs to go to school, but is landed with being taught, most boringly, by Miss Dobbs, her governess. At the beginning of the book, Lawrence, Marianne's brother goes off to school,  and her parents leave the grand family home to take him there and then to visit 'their Northern factories."  While they're away,  Gravity loses her job and is cast out for being a thief. A locket has gone missing and suspicion falls on her. We all know she's innocent but it's only after many adventures and scrapes and meetings and different exciting and sometimes farcical  situations that order is restored. The parents  return and Gravity is reinstated, vindicated. Also, the possibility of a proper education in a school looms for Marianne. 

The 1790s were a time of great change both in technology and in science. The huge gap between rich and poor widened. Girls, of course, were  not important in the hierarchy and poor, orphaned girls were at the bottom of any social ladder. Having two contrasting heroines in Gravity and Marianne illustrates these differences very well for young readers.

Prue is kind to her characters, even the really nasty ones. She has a benevolent eye, though nothing escapes her. She can see every inadequacy and though it's never laboured, she gives her opinion of people subtly. Our first sight of Sir William (the local bigwig's) steward goes like this:  "It was on the fifth day of Gravity's new life that a smooth-faced gentleman rode into the yard."  We know, don't we, that  he's going to be a baddie just from that perfectly-judged adjective?

The illustrations by Alex Paterson are delightful and capture the fast-moving action  very well.

I'm going to end by quoting Prue herself from the introductory page she's written for this book: "Above all I discovered that although in those days everything was different, everything was also the same: bad people needed to be faced with courage, and good ones rewarded. That's Gravity's story and Marianne's story, and it's mine. And of course it's yours too."

This is well-written, fast-moving and involving book. It also has a soundly-set moral compass. If you possibly can, do seek it out. 



Ian Beck said...

Fascinating and it clears up a little mystery about a cup once shown on the Antiques Roadshow which had belonged to one... Silence Wildgoose a marvellous name which I had always intended to use in a story but so far never have,

Sally Prue said...

Do write it, Ian! I fear your mystery is not entirely cleared up, though. Some workhouses did name their orphans according to a system, as Charles Dickens tells us in Oliver Twist, but the Personal Attribute + Bird method is my own invention. Like you with Silence Wildgoose, I had long been enamoured of the name Gravity Sparrow, and making this name part of a Workhouse system also helped with a minor plot point in the story. I was also very much entertained by the thought of some child somewhere being called Quite-Good-at-Sewing Lesser Spotted Woodpecker!

Penny Dolan said...

Adele, I so agree about these "lesser" books being increasingly important as these stories are the ones that most children will meet in their school lives, and which can also give them - depending on the publisher - a widened sense of language,vocabulary, history and of culture/s.

A good recommendation.

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