My mom had the complete set of these when I was a kid and I’d read them and feel very grown up. All I remembered about the book as an adult was a feeling of coziness and warmth, hence the bingo square. I was struck a few weeks ago with the urge to revisit these and see if my opinion had changed, so I picked up the first book and it was a good quick palate cleanser read after the longer commitment that was Otherland.
Village School is the first in the Fairacre series, which follows Miss Read, a village schoolteacher in post-WWII Britain. It’s a nuanced and warm portrait of both the school and the wider village. I think what struck me the most as an adult was the depth to the characters and the historical context that I’d been missing as a child. All I really remember was being fascinated by the school aspect, which makes sense since I was also probably in third-fifth grades when I was reading these (and also I have a life-long love of books set in schools, which this series may have partially precipitated). The deprivation in terms of material comforts — no running water and no indoor plumbing in the whole village — really went over my head. We tend to forget how long it took England to really get back on its feet after the war, and the impact of the Labour government’s policies in terms of social housing and programming. This book is set around 1955, and they’re still having a truck come around and take the sewage out of the houses once a day, and one boy is desperate to have something for lunch other than bread and cheese. The strength of this book is in its realistic portrayal of the village community in its most day to day, wonderful ordinariness, and it perfectly captures the natural beauty of the countryside and the tapestry of life within it.
My only issue with this book is the sudden casual use of the N-word in a joking derogatory phrase, inclusion of a golliwog toy being won at a fair, and the complicated portrayal of the “gipsy” family in the village. It’s period-typical racism, I guess, but it did jar me out of my complacent, cheerful reading. I had completely missed it as a kid and it brought me out of the cozy zone I was aiming for, but I actually think it added to the book’s historical import, as the casual nature of the racism brings home how ingrained and unchallenged explicit racism has been. It’s always good to grapple with added complexity and the negative aspects of previously beloved cultural touchstones.
Overall I think I will probably pick up the next book in the series, as I enjoyed my visit to Fairacre after so many years away, and I’m interested to see how the village evolves.