Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Wool Pack by Cynthia Harnett (1951)

Cynthia Harnett is one of the most elusive authors we've encountered so far in our book group. In spite of a good deal of online digging by Isabelle, very little about Harnett's personal biography can be found.

While the personal details discovered were slight (born 1893 in London, studies at Chelsea School of Art, died 1981), there was a good deal of discussion about her work.

Harnett's early publications were collaborations with George Vernon Stokes. Focused on the subjects of dogs and the countryside (and sometimes both). Titles included "In praise of Dogs" (1936) and Junk the Puppy (1937).
Harnett is, however, best known for her six historical novels, written between 1949 and 1971.

Our group read "The Wool Pack", which won the Carnegie Medal for best children's book in 1951. Set in the fifteenth century Cotswolds, this book gives a beautifully researched and elegantly written insight into the lives of wool merchants and country people of the time (with some skullduggery, smuggling and double-crossing thrown in for entertainment).

All members of the book group thoroughly enjoyed the book, enjoying Harnett's prose and the sense of immersion in another time. Harnett's exquisite line drawings which illustrate her books are an added bonus, and were remarked on by all the readers.
The only faint reservation about the story was that it was rather slow to start, but picked up substantially in the second half, and left us wishing for more when we reached the end.
Karen, a long time fan of Harnett's writing, recommended "Ring out Bow Bells" as a pacier, more dynamic story. Having followed up her recommendation I'd agree, and would definitely suggest "Ring out Bow Bells" or "Stars of Fortune" as a starting point for Harnett's work. Both these stories hit the ground running in terms of plot, and also demonstrate Harnett's strength in exploring the dynamics that exist between a group of siblings. Each child in the family group is distinctive, and the tensions between the loyalties they owe to one another and to the world of adults are skillfully explored.

Notes at the end of each story show the links between the tale and real people and places in history. Harnett was a great researcher. Her attention to detail is lightly held, not intruding on the narrative, but you come away from reading her stories feeling as though you have visited another time and place.

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