Maria Gripe’s trilogy is just charming.
Josephine chooses her own name because the name Anna Grå is too big for her, like a pair of shoes that she needs to grow into.
She is six years old. Her blue sweater is getting too small but she has gotten too big to swing on the big door handles that lead to Papa-Father’s room.
They live at the vicarage and Mandy is “an important person” there: she is the cook, with strange and wonderful stories.
The field next to the vicarage is always fresh: “the flowers and the grass are new each year”. But otherwise “everything is as old as can be”, the trees in the avenue, the furnishings…”all of them are old”, even Mandy.
And it’s true, there is something old-fashioned about these stories. But there is also something timeless about them, something that almost makes them feel a little more ‘now’ than I was expecting.
A rescue of kittens, a much-older sister’s wedding, walks in the meadow with her father, forbidden packets of chewing gum, an adopted granny, unapproved hair and wardrobe modifications, meetings with Old Man God and also with the King: they are sweet tales with just the right amount of mischief.
“If one has to die, at least it ought to be in the winter, when it’s dark outside and the weather is bad.”
(I was allowed to buy this book at a shop when I was travelling with my family to Elora as a young girl; I liked to imagine myself as Josephine, with perfect china-doll pale skin and blonde hair and red shoes with kittens in a basket. I probably spent as much time staring at the cover illustration as I did reading!)
Hugo and Josephine begins on the first day of school. (This recalls Carolyn Haywood’s B is for Betsy and Ramona the Pest, doesn’t it?!)
“Together they go in through the school door, up a stone staircase, the most worn-out staircase Josephine has ever seen. The walls echo. Inside, there is a peculiar smell, strange and awesome. A Bit scared, Josephine holds her breath a moment; then, slowly, she breathes in the air. She smiles delightedly. So this is how a school smells! Now she knows.”
Beyond the smell, though, Josephine isn’t entirely fond of school. The work is fine — she succeeds with words and numbers — but “most of her learning [is] during recess and after school is over”. And Josephine doesn’t fit in.
Her classmates know that she is not from town but from the vicarage; her school bag is of the wrong sort and she forgets to bring bookmarks to school to swap.
Hugo doesn’t fit in either. He carves shapes from pieces of wood. His backpack is filled with bits and pieces of the outdoor world. He runs on his own time.
He is not at all like his classmates, and he is not at all bothered by it. Somehow, he can navigate life on the margins.
“Either you must be exactly like all the others. Or you must be completely different from them — as Hugo is. You mustn’t ever be nearly like everyone else. As Josephine is.”
The third book in the trilogy concentrates on Hugo.
He is an interesting character because he has to face things that Josephine does not (different kinds of loss that have obviously had an impact on him but it’s not the kind of response that you would expect).
In Hugo, we meet Miriam, whose grandmother is bookish. Which allows for some sweet observations like this one: “Anyone who writes a book spins a web. Anyone who reads a book is struggling in a web.”
Miriam’s arrival on the scene causes a bit of a kurfuffle, but Hugo and Josephine’s friendship endures.
There’s a bicycle to ride, there are tasks to be done to earn a few kroner, there are people to meet and talk to in the woods: it’s a gentle story in the wake of some sadness.
These tales have a degree of self-awareness that doesn’t fit seamlessly with my understanding of a child’s outlook.
For instance, Josephine notices that the adults in her life don’t hold grudges long, even if they are very angry with her it doesn’t last long. But from a child’s perspective, I think the early bedtimes and missed desserts are monstrous deprivations at the time.
And when jeered at by a school-mate and called a “stone-age brat”, she somehow knows that refers to a period of time, although she doesn’t know which time. (This is in the first book; in the third book she fully understands the reference and has claimed it as a positive.)
But this didn’t seem to bother me as a child reading these stories. And it doesn’t eclipse their charm returning to them as an adult either.
Have you read any of Maria Gripe’s writing? Or revisted any children’s classics lately?
NOTE: Translated by Paul Britten Austin and Illustrated by Harald Gripe