Last night I cried myself to sleep after finishing Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley. As the title suggests, the story is an elegy, a bittersweet hymn to a time that has ended and people who have passed. It’s the sort of story that resonates with all who have seen loved ones go and childhood end.
Llewellyn writes in English, but imitating the style of the Welsh language with unfamiliar colloquial constructions of the rural coal miners. Though it takes a bit of getting used to, the flow of their speech grows on you because of its simplicity and sincerity. For example, the narrator Huw Morgan once says, “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.” Always “There is” and never “it is”, and usually another verbal in the same sentence that may or may not keep with the same tense. The meaning is clear enough, though.
I grew attached to Huw during this read–the first time in a long while that I’ve been truly fond of a protagonist. As a young boy, his innocence naturally makes him an endearing figure. As he matures, other aspects of his personality (an unexpectedly fierce temper, a weakness for flirtatious young women, and an unwavering loyalty to his dear mother and sister-in-law) emerge and render him imperfect enough to stay a believable character, but never so flawed that he loses the charm of his youthful sincerity.
How Green Was My Valley is Huw’s version of his family’s story: his father struggling to make a living as the local mines are given over to conglomerates; his brothers fighting to form a union and reverse the inevitable decay of working conditions; his sisters learning to listen to their hearts; and his mother, always feeding her boys, always loving well and always suffering for the pain of her children.
Llewellyn’s depiction of their home life is an enviable one. They always take supper together, even when the older boys are grown and independent. They sit around the fire reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson together, laughing out loud at the good Doctor’s wit. And whenever someone is in low spirits, another member of the family comes with a cup of tea and a listening ear. The brothers dole out black eyes to any young men who dare speak to the sisters without permission from the father. The sisters value and protect their own modesty. Even little Huw will get into a fist fight to protect his family’s good name. They just look after one another so well. And they sing! On the way to church, coming home from the mine, before a wedding, after a funeral, always singing together.
The story is thick with subplots and overflowing with universal themes, all of which you can easily enjoy if you choose to read it for yourself. But the most touching part of the story, in my experience, is Huw’s vision of himself as connected to the race of Man though the heritage of his family.
I saw behind me those who had gone, and before me, those who are to come. I looked back and saw my father, and his father, and all our fathers, and in front, to see my son, and his son, and the sons upon sons beyond. And their eyes were my eyes.
As I felt, so they had felt, and were to feel, as then, so now, as tomorrow and forever. Then I was not afraid, for I was in a long line that had no beginning, and no end, and the hand of his father grasped my father’s hand, and his hand was in mine, and my unborn son took my right hand, and all, up and down the line that stretched from Time That Was, to Time That Is, and Is Not Yet, raised their hands to show the link, and we found that we were one . . .
A beautiful image of the communion of saints. The story ends with a reminder that the dead live on in the memories and traditions of the living.
So though the last pages left me in tears, it cannot be considered a tragedy in any respect. Huw’s heart is loving to the end, and therein lies his hope, and all of ours.