Chasing After Ghost Children

I wanted to like The Children of Green Knowe by L. M. Boston.  It’s usually not a good sign when a review begins that way, is it?  You see, I saw it reviewed on a blog I follow, and it sounded intriguing.  Well…while I still respect that blogger’s opinion 🙂 I won’t be adding this to my list of favorite British children’s fantasy classics (a long list I ought to post some time!)

The book is about Tolly, a little boy who goes to live with his great-grandmother at his family’s ancestral home, a castle called Green Knowe (or Green Noah).  His great-grandmother tells him stories about his ancestors who lived in the house, especially three long-ago children, Toby, Alexander and Linnet.  Tolly quickly realizes that the children are still at Green Knowe, as ghosts.

I really like the concept, and I liked the setting.  I loved one small bit, when Tolly first meets his great-grandmother, and she’s eager to see who in the family’s past he’ll resemble–because all the faces return to her eventually.  I rather enjoyed the family stories the grandmother told.

But Tolly’s story fell pretty flat for me.  It might have helped if I had known his age sooner.  I finally figured out most of the way through that he’s six or thereabouts, when he comments that six-year-old Linnett is as big as he is.  Prior to that, he seemed sometimes older, sometimes younger, making his more childish moments disconcerting.  For that, and in a general way, it was hard to get a handle on the character.

But my bigger problem was the ghost children.  They seemed to have no depth at all.  They’re not creepy, scary ghosts; they’re not ghosts with unfinished business; they’re not ghosts who need something from the living, or even who want to do something for the living.  They’re perfect paragons who never struggle.  Gail Carson Levine, on her blog, often writes about the importance of making your characters suffer sometimes, and these characters never do.  They simply wander through the book as happy ghosts who spend all their time playing.  Their favorite game seems to be hide and seek, which doesn’t even facilitate getting to know someone.  Even when they make themselves more available, I never felt that Tolly or I could really enter a friendship with them.  I don’t think Tolly saw it, but they seemed to me to be just too self-sufficient unto themselves.  They were friendly to Tolly, but they never seemed particularly interested in him either, simply taking him for granted as a new playfellow, if they felt like playing.

And the animals.  You know that scene in the Disney Snow White when she makes friends with the entire forest?  It was like that.  The ghost children have a horse, and a deer, and a fox, and a rabbit, and a fish, and a hedgehog, and a whole flock of birds, including a peacock, and possibly one or two other animals I’m forgetting.  It was a bit much.

It may be that I came to this book too late in life.  If I had picked this up as a child, maybe I wouldn’t have seen some of the character issues, and to be honest I probably would have thought the menagerie was neat.  But I had trouble coming to this book at an older age.  My apologies if I’m pulling apart a beloved childhood favorite of anyone else–and by all means, tell me what you love about it that I managed to miss!

One thought on “Chasing After Ghost Children

  1. Diane

    It probably does make a difference at what age you first read a book like that. A child could be much more forgiving of the weaknesses in the story that you noticed as an adult. And happy playful ghosts are a good thing if you’re a child reader who doesn’t like scary books but wants to read about ghosts anyway.

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