How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn is the story of a family in a Welsh mining village in the 1800s. The story begins with the narrator, Huw (pronounced like Hugh), looking back over his time in the valley just as he is getting ready to leave it as an older man.
Huw remembers his somewhat idyllic childhood. Most of the men in the valley worked in the coal mines. They’d come home en masse covered with coal dust, take a bath, and enjoy a fine meal prepared by their wives. Saturdays were special: payday. Every wife would dress in her second-best and bring a chair outside her door. Her husband would put his pay for the week in her lap. After a bath and a good dinner, then they’d go shopping.
Huw was the youngest son. Most of his brothers worked in the mines and contributed to the family coffers, so they were well-off, comparatively, and able to help others when times were hard. Huw was in an accident after which he could not walk for five years. Even after he could walk, his legs were spindly. Huw was educated by a village woman until she had taught him all she could. Then she prepared him for the national school. There he was a target, both because he was so slight and because he was the new kid. When he came home beat up, his father taught him how to defend himself.
Fighting was a big part of life then. People fought over slights, over speaking to a man’s daughter without asking his permission first, over just about any real or perceived infraction.
Huw’s memories trace the progression of his family, his own coming to manhood, Mr. Gruffydd (Griffith), the town minister, troubles and triumphs in town and at school. Trouble with the mines affected most of the families, and arguments flew back and forth about the best way to handle them. Some, including some of Huw’s brothers, were for unions, some for striking. And the slag heap, made up of waste from the mines, continually grew into a bigger blight on the landscape, eventually choking off life from the river and the land.
I’m not one to see symbolism behind every element in literature, but the slag heap is such a presence through the book that it must symbolize something. I’m not sure exactly what, though. Man’s progression, which so often ends up harming his environment? Man’s inherent corruption, which affects everything he touches? Maybe a bit of both.
Llewellyn is a beautiful writer, with a musical lilt to much of his prose. I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Ralph Cosham, and enjoyed hearing the lyricism of the book that way. I also checked a print copy from the library and enjoyed rereading a few passages.
There is beauitful to watch a mountain sleeping, and other mountains in the other valleys rising up like bits of blue velvet to make you feel you could cut a piece and wear it for a coat, to dance in above the fat clouds.
O, there is lovely to feel a book, a good book, firm in the hand, for its fatness holds rich promise, and you are hot inside to think of good hours to come.
There is good a cup of tea is when you are feeling low. Thin, and plenty of milk, and brown sugar in the crystal, in a big cup so that when your mouth is used to the heat you can drink instead of sipping. Every part of you inside you that seems to have gone to sleep comes lively again. A good friend of mine is a cup of tea, indeed.
I knew she was laughing, but she looked as though she were crying, with golden tears unsteady in her eyes, and her eyes gone lovely blue to call for pity, big, and round, like a little girl wanting to be carried, and turning down her mouth, only a little not to be ugly, and a tremble in the chin, and with hair almost the colour of a new penny about her face and hanging down three feet, with stray ones shining like the strings of a harp across her eyes and down her cheeks.
There is a wholeness about a woman, of shape, and sound, and colour, and taste, and smell, a quietness that is her, that you will want to hold tightly to you, all, every little bit, without words, in peace, with jealousy for the things that escape the clumsiness of your arms. So you feel, when you love.
Men lose their birthrights for a mess of pottage only if they stop using the gifts given them by God for their betterment. By prayer. That is the first and greatest gift. Use the gift of prayer. Ask for strength of mind, and a clear vision. Then sense. Use your sense. …Think long and well. By prayer and good thought you will conquer all enemies.
Never mind what you feel. Think. Watch. Think again. And then one step at a time to put things right. As a mason puts one block at a time. To build solid and good. So with thought. Think. Build one thought at a time. Think solid. Then act.
Well,” my father said to her, and looked at her.
“Well,” my mother said to him, and looked at him.
In that quietness they were speaking their own language, with their eyes, with the way they stood, with what they put into the air about them, each knowing what the other was saying, and having strength one from the other, for they had been learning through forty years of being together, and their minds were one.”
When Huw was sent to take some things to a neighbor having a baby, he thought doctors brought babies in their bags. The daughter of the woman having the baby told him otherwise and brought him to a window to watch to prove her point. Traumatized, he went home, and eventually his parents found out. He thought he was going to get in trouble, but his father just said:
Listen to me. Forget all you saw. Leave it. Take your mind from it. It had nothing to do with you. But use it for experience. Now you know what hurt it brings to women when men come into the world. Remember, and make it up to your Mama and to all women. . . And another thing let it do . . . There is no room for pride in any man. There is no room for unkindness. There is no room for wit at the expense of others. All men are born the same, and equal. As you saw to-day, so come the Captains and the Kings and the Tinkers and the Tailors. Let the memory direct your dealings with men and women. And be sure to take good care of Mama.
Another interesting comment about women came when he and one sister had to do all the dishes for their large family, and he commented, “A man will never know a woman until he knows her work.”
One of the funniest parts was when the village school teacher came to the house to drill Huw before his examination for the English school. She gave him a math problem about how long it would take to fill up a bathtub with so many gallons going in and two holes letting so much out the bottom. Huw’s mother, a smart woman in her own right but not much on “book learning,” can’t get over the silliness of someone pouring water into a tub with holes. Then when they move on to decimals, she wants to know who came up with that idea and who says what that little dot is supposed to do.
One somewhat disturbing part was when a small girl was “ravaged,” and the men of the village sought him out and took his punishment into their own hands.
“To hand her murderer over to the police will give him an extra day to live, which your daughter was denied,” said Mr. Gruffydd. “He shall be fed and housed until the day he meets the rope, but your daughter will lie beneath the dead wreaths long before then, and the rope gives a good quick and clean, without blood, without pain, without torture of the soul and body. Is justice done, then, with a rope about the neck of a man, and his victim, a child of seven years, torn and twisted, long in her grave?”
“No,” said the crowd.
“Shall we burn him?” asked Mr. Gruffydd. “But if we do, he will die a death of honour, for martyrs died in the flame. What then?”
“Give him to me,” said Cynlais Pritchard.
“Is that your common decision?” Mr. Gruffydd asked the crowd.
“Yes,” they all shouted back.
“Take him,” said Mr. Gruffydd, “and as we do with him, so shall we do with the next, if next there is. And remember, if you bury him, however deep, you pollute innocent ground. Burden not the earth with such.”
Though the people were God-fearing, sadly, Huw saw Christ as only a man.
There is a smattering of “damns,” “hells,” and such. There is one description of teenage fondling and another of a sexual encounter that are written metaphorically, but still more graphically than I am comfortable with.
Though much of the book has a nostalgic feel, to me it ended up sad. Nearly everyone has passed on and the slag heap is about to crush what’s left. Huw muses:
But you have gone now, all of you that were so beautiful when you were quick with life. Yet not gone, for you are still a living truth inside my mind. So how are you dead, my brothers and sisters, and all of you, when you live with me as surely as I live with myself.
Llewellyn was of Welsh decent and portrayed this as something of his own history. After his death, it was discovered that he had not been in Wales until well after the book was published. He knew people from Welsh mining families and drew from their conversations.
The 1941 film version with Roddy McDowall and Maureen O’Hara remains popular even today. I saw it years ago but I remember little from it. I’d like to watch it again some time.