The Chimneys of Green Knowe


The Chimneys of Green Knowe was far and away my favourite of Lucy M. Boston's Green Knowe series as a child; I read it so many times I still know it almost by heart. In contrast to The Children of Green Knowe, which has a dreamy Christmas atmosphere and almost no plot at all, Chimneys is set in spring and absolutely brims with exciting stories -- Jacob's escape from slavery, his and Susan's juju ceremony, Jacob being sent up the chimneys by Sefton, the fire, the gypsies, young Boggis's narrow escape from the press gang in which Tolly plays a helping hand, the lost jewels...

Alas, some aspects of the novel haven't aged well. The N word is used (though never approvingly) and racist attitudes are well to the fore, albeit with the explicit disapproval of the author. Jacob is dressed up as a monkey, his black hands are regarded as dirty by the servants etc; but his character is utterly admirable, he is brave, resourceful, loyal and inventive, and his friendship with intelligent, adventurous, blind Susan is delightful. On the other hand, the description of the gypsies at the very end of the book has no redeeming qualities; the sympathy and understanding extended to Jacob apparently doesn't apply to these stereotypical villains.

Despite these reservations, I still thoroughly enjoy Chimneys and the interweaving of past and present: Tolly's part in the rescue of young Boggis which I mentioned above, the way Susan and Jacob in 1799 hear 'the ghost boy' Tolly singing his sea shanties in the treetops a hundred and fifty years later. The relationship between Tolly and his great-grandmother is lovely, and the motif of the quilt patches which tie past and present together is clever and satisfying. One of my favourites of all time.

(I first read Chimneys as a child in colonial PNG. I think, I hope, that the portrayal of quick-witted, fierce Jacob helped to counteract the racist attitudes to the 'locals' that surrounded me every day.)

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