Whispering Mountain by Joan Aiken 304pp RL 4
Winner of the 1969 Guardian Award for Children's Fiction - the British equivalent of the Pulitzer - Whispering Mountain another fabulous book by Joan Aiken, and, to my surprise, part of the The Wolves Chronicles, which begins with The Wolves of Willoughby Place. I love it when an author take a minor character from one novel and makes him or her the center of another novel. EL Konigsburg weaves this sort of tapestry with her books Silent to the Bone, The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place and the mysterious edge of the known world. Aiken does the same with Whispering Mountain, Is Underground and Cold Shoulder Road, creating side-stories that are as rich an intriguing as the books with Dido Twite, heroine of the Wolves Chronicles, in them. The main character in Whispering Mountain, Owen Hughes, is the son of Captain Hughes of the Thrush (which returns Dido to England in The Cuckoo Tree), who has been sent to live with his crotchety Grandfather in the tiny Welsh village of Pennygaff. Like Jenny Nimmo's Snow Spider trilogy, this book is abundant with Welsh names and words. In fact, Whispering Mountain has so many Welsh words and names woven into the text that there is a glossary in the back of the book, but don't let that deter you. It doesn't take long to get used to the Welsh usage of the letter "f" in the place of "s," among other things. And, the language and dialogues are so rich you'll find yourself reading passages more than once for pleasure, not comprehension.
Owen arrives in town to live with a grandfather he has never met, a retired sea captain who now runs the town museum, to find his identity challenged and his presence resented by the locals. Mr Hughes grudgingly accepts him into his life, but the town bullies, Dove, Mog, Hfwa, Follentine and Luggins torment Owen every day. The book begins with Owen trying to outwit the gang and happily meeting up with his old traveling companion, the barber, healer and poet Tom Dando and his daughter Arabis. When Owen had been left at port in Southampton he had been preparing to walk to Wales but the Dando's invited him to make the journey, as far as Gloucester, in their gypsy wagon. It is Arabis' falcon, Hawc, who comes to Owen's aid and scatters the boys who are in the process of giving him a pounding. Once safely inside the caravan Owen tells the Dandos about his life in Pennygaff and the amazing discover his grandfather has made. It seems that he has found the long missing Harp of Teirtu. It seems that this harp was stolen by Prince Kelyddon, along with the help of his cousin, King Arthur, as a bride-gift for the Princess Olwen. The once golden harp eventually ended up with St Ennodawg in his monastery near Pennygaff. Then is disappeared. Arabis recalls a prophecy made by one of the old bards that tells of the castle of Malyn riding on a cloud, a plunge from Devil's Leap and the Children of the Darkness being freed. All of it seems to be a mysterious riddle to the children at the time but will make perfect sense by the ned of the novel.
As always, Joan Aiken has a cast of amazing characters and settings that come together to make for a suspenseful adventure. There is the wicked Lord Malyn who will stop at nothing to get his hands on the Harp of Teirtu. There is Brother Ianto, the remaining monk in the Order of St Ennodawg, who has been on a mission in China this past decade along with the now deceased Brother Twm, learning the art of optometry. And, there is my favorite character, the loquacious Seljuk of Rum, a nobleman from Turkey who was rescued from his overturned carriage a year earlier by Brother Ianto. Anytime the Seljuk speaks brings a smile to my face and I have to share a sample of his communication style, "It is to do with a harp, some Harp of Teirtu, I apprehended, conceive, hit the nail on the head. I understand he wishes to locate, procure, ay his paws on the harp and is unable to do so." Dove, Hfwa, Luggins and Mog also join in the action after Owen and the harp of Teirtu are stolen from the museum by the wretched thieves Bilk and Prigman, who are working for Lord Malyn. Owen and his former tormentors take off across the mountainous country to find the harp and along the way rescue the missing Prince David (remember, Aiken's books are set in an alternate reality, set roughly in the early 1800s, where Good King James III is on the throne) who has been gored by a wild boar while hunting.
On top of this, Arabis discovers a race of people with miniature camels living in the winding tunnels and crevices of the Whispering Mountian who just may be the relatives of her dead mother and makers (and rightful owners) of the Harp of Teirtu. Brought to the country by force over one hundred and two generations ago to be be slaves in the gold mines in the Whispering Mountain due to their skill as a people in mining and working with gold, they were left behind when their conquerers (probably Romans) moved on to other lands. They could not remember the way to their ancestral home and thus lived in secret for hundreds of years in the mountain. The mountain people, a hermit from their tribe named Abipaal and Arabis succeed in regaining the harp, but she loses something else very dear to her in a great stand-off with Lord Malyn on the mountain in an effort to save the life of Prince David. And, in a wonderful turn of events, it seems that the Seljuk of Rum is the dynastic leader of the people of the mountain and has come to take them home after so many years.
It is amazing what is packed into this relatively short book. As always, Joan Aiken is a master at creating a world within a book, whether it is fantastical or historical, you see it in your mind's eye as you read. The geographical landscape and characters are so vividly rendered. The edition I have has cover art by the amazing fantasy artist Charles Vess, collaborator with Neil Gaiman on the picture book Blueberry Girl. Neil Gaiman is the author of Coraline, which was made into a great movie this year, and the marvelous Graveyard Book, winner of the 2009 Newbery Award.
Now that I've gotten you to read this whole review I have to tell you that, since I reviewed this book last year, it has gone out of print in the United States. That doesn't mean you can't find it at a library, used bookstore/website or one of my favorite places to "trade" books, PaperBackSwap. I have found out of print books and books that are only a year or so old, all in great condition. If you have a pile of books you are willing to part with, this is a great way to keep your kids in books!