When I saw The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge listed as Carrie’s Reading to Know Classics Book Club selection for March. I wanted to give it a try because I had seen Goudge highly recommended. This is one of her children’s books, but she has written for adults as well.
This story begins with recently orphaned Maria Merryweather and her governess, Miss Heliotrope, traveling to Moonacre Manor to live with Maria’s uncle. The first few chapters are a series of discoveries as Maria gets to know her new guardian, house, room, village, church, etc., and along the way she learns that she and Mrs. H. are the first females to set foot in the house in 20 years, that there are a group of wicked Men of the Dark Woods doing wicked things like poaching animals and blocking the way to Merryweather Bay. When she finds that there was a quarrel caused by her own ancestors that set off these bad men , she feels it is her duty and destiny to set things right. In the course of her quest, she also has to learn patience and self-control over her own anger and tendency to hasty words, the lack of which traits contributed to the original disagreement in the first place.
The story has the flavor of a fairy tale, with animals who seem to know what to do and help Maria along the way (including a cat who writes messages in hieroglyphics in the ashes of the fireplace), the appearance of the little white horse, who is actually a unicorn, at key points in the story, and the discovery that her “imaginary friend” in London actually is a real boy who had been visiting her in his dreams (which I thought odd on many levels. Wouldn’t he have visited her in her dreams?)
It took a while for me to get into the story. All the discoveries of her new place and descriptions were fine, but had me thinking, “OK, when are we going to get into the plot?” When we finally did, my interest picked up a little. I like “quest” stories, particularly when the main character has to conquer something in him- or herself along the way, so I liked that aspect, as well as the aspect that the first step in setting things right was to give Paradise Hill, formerly run by monks, back to God (I don’t know what Goudge’s religious views were, but there are mentions of Biblical principles sprinkled here and there.)
But somehow the book just didn’t grab me, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. I can’t say I strongly disliked it, but I just didn’t love it like I thought it would. As Bekah mentioned in her review, you have to suspend a lot of disbelief to enjoy the story, even knowing that it is a fantasy. I liked Goudge’s descriptions and characterizations for the most part, and I liked the general storyline ok. I liked her planting of little clues, like Maria’s regal bearing at the beginning, before she even knew she was descended from a Moon Princess, and Miss Heliotrope’s pointing out of the “house of her dreams,” before she has any clue that she will marry its owner in the end. I wasn’t really enthralled with Maria, but I liked her well enough. All of the elements were there to make for a charming story, but to me charm was the exact thing it was missing. It took me a long time to get through it just because I wasn’t motivated to pick it up. But that may just be me (and Carrie. 🙂 ) A quick scan of other reviews show that many people love it, and it did win a Carnegie Medal.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)