Thursday, 20 September 2012

A 1930s childhood and its lessons for today

The Heart is Highland - Memories of a Childhood in a Scottish Glen by Maisie Steven, now in its third edition and very proudly published by Lonely Scribe, is a book that is close to my heart. It was on my desk, waiting to be edited, on my first day in my first proper publishing job as a desk editor. More than ten years on, it's still one of my favourite books, and Maisie is one of my most cherished authors.

If you've read this blog before you might think that The Heart is Highland is something entirely separate from Lonely Scribe's parenting books, coming under the heading, on our booklist page, of social history and memoir.

Recently, however, I've been considering the book in a new light and wondering whether, in fact, it ought to sit more closely alongside those parenting books. It paints such a vivid picture of a rich and happy childhood that maybe we should be thinking of it as a way of gaining some valuable perspective on the way in which we parent our children today.

There isn't space here to tell of all the delights that are in the book, which is a child's-eye-view of each month of the year in the beautiful Highland glen where Maisie and her sister lived with their parents during the 1930s. It's a lovingly detailed and engaging story, peppered with quirky characters and episodes from community life (it bears comparison with Call the Midwife and All Creatures Great and Small - and, like them, would be wonderful adapted for television). 

The author herself makes a case for the book being seen as more than just a nostalgic look at the past, when she says in the introduction:
"It would be a pity if these reminiscences were to be seen as mere nostalgia for the past; better, surely, to take from them something positive for the future... For me what seems to shine through is just how much more quality of life means than standard of living, and how happiness is not, contrary to the message of today's aggressive advertising, dependent upon material possessions. Surely we can choose in different ways to regain that lost simplicity."
This strikes a chord with me as a modern parent trying to navigate my three small children through a complex world. I try, in my own way, to give my children a taste of the kind of childhood Maisie enjoyed. We keep chickens, grow vegetables, cook, read and explore the outdoors with our children. They are lucky enough to have much in common with the young Maisie, although they are growing up nearly a century later. I've found it fascinating to re-read the book now that I'm a mother myself.

And the author herself, the product of this Highland childhood? I've been privileged to know Maisie for more than ten years - although we've never met in person - and she's now in her eighties. In all the time I've known her she has been unfailingly open-hearted, honest and generous, cheerful, willing to work to deadlines and quick to make suggestions. She's dealt in a quiet and dignified way with all that life has thrown at her in recent years (including the death of her husband, and a stroke that affected her ability to write). She's a mother and a grandmother, a qualified dietician and the author of several books, including The Good Scots Diet - and The Heart is Highland is a book that she once thought she'd never write. Thankfully her son Kenneth, also a writer, gently encouraged her to pick up her pen. As Maisie explains in the book's introduction:
"...I made a very tentative start with the month of January. And then a strange thing happened. As if a cupboard full of old treasures had been opened and the contents spilled out onto the floor, all kinds of memories began to surface - of people, places and events, and of customs and traditions, some of which I had not thought of for more than half a century."
Maisie's skill, at both remembering and then capturing on the page the scenes of her childhood, makes The Heart is Highland a book that I hope will continue to find many new readers. It's truly a book that speaks across the generations.

You can like the book's Facebook page using the link on the right: I'll be posting updates and maybe a few more extracts there.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed - it's a lovely book - and I'm not just saying that because the author happens to be a friend!