Retro Review

The Green Years by A.J. Cronin (Little, Brown and Co., 1944)

The first review I wrote for the TAPinto franchise was When Books Went to War by Molly Guptil Manning. The book explained how the librarians in the United States held book drives to send reading material to the men on the war fronts in Europe and  the South Pacific. Books provided an escape from boredom, uncomfortable living quarters, terrible food, foxholes and bombs blasting overhead. The soldiers treasured receiving them and would pass each book around the barracks until they fell apart.

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From January 1945 until October of that year, my father, Jay Dakelman and mother, Thelma, developed a relationship that led to over 40 years of a fulfilling marriage. Fortunately, my parents were avid correspondents and my mother had the presence of mind to keep all of Jay’s letters, a very precious legacy to leave to our family.

Recently I read the letters, in which my father told Thelma about the films that the troops were shown on occasion overseas. He also detailed the books he read, and gave a little synopsis of each as well. I decided that I wanted to read the books that he mentioned, starting with A.J. Cronin’s The Green Years published in 1944 to sample the kinds of novels being offered to our troops.

Although the works of A. J. Cronin were popular in his day, the physician who left medicine to write full time. is little remembered today.  The Green Years is a coming of age novel, based on Cronin’s youthful experiences growing up.

The plot revolves around an Irish boy, eight year old Robert Shannon, who has been orphaned and is forced to live with his grandparents and great grandfather in Scotland. Moving to a country entrenched in Presbytarian faith is challenging to Robie, who is Irish Catholic. He is taunted by boys in his school for clinging to his papist faith, making him miserable. However, despite losing his parents and having to move to a strange country, Robie never doubts the presence of God.

Robert manages to make two friends, Louisa Keith and Gavin Blair, both of whom attend his school, the Academy. Robert and Gavin’s friendship begins when both boys are goaded into having a fist fight, after which they smile at each other and put the fight aside. Due to their common interests, particularly in the sciences, the bond between the boys grows deeper throughout the story.

Robert’s closest friend, though, is his great grandfather, Cadger Gow, whom Robie calls Grandpa. Although Gow lives in the house with his daughter and her large family, he takes all of his meals in his room, except for breakfast. His presence in the house is tolerated, but not embraced. Therefore, when Robie lands in Scotland, he is designated to sleep in Grandpa’s room, and accompany the old man on his mysterious outings. And the pair do have some naughty outings. It cannot be said that Grandpa, who teaches Robie how to shoplift and encourages the boy to protect his honor by fighting with the boys who taunt him, is a great influence on Robie’s character.

Grandpa is also a fabulous story teller, although at first Robie thinks that the tall tales that Grandpa tells him are factual. For example, Grandpa has a huge, bulbous nose which dominates the other features in his face and is the subject of much consternation in the town where they live. When Robie asks Grandpa where he got that nose, Grandpa tells the boy that he got it in the Zulu War, where Grandpa had risen to become the right hand man of the Colonel in charge of his unit. He then tried to break through enemy lines, which he almost managed, but then the Zulus came at him with their poisoned arrows. 

“Was that when you got your nose, Grandpa?” Robie asked. 

He nodded solemnly, caressing the organ with reminiscent tenderness. “It was, boy , , , an assagia  , , poisoned . . . direct hit. Tilting his hat over his eyes against the sun, he concluded reminiscently: “The Queen herself expressed regret when she decorated me at Balmoral.”

After hearing this exciting tale, how can Robie do anything but worship his brave, respected grandfather?

Cadger Gow adds humor and insight into Robie’s childhood and encourages the boy to pursue a career in medicine when others in the family scoff and say there is no money to pay for such an extravagance. But Grandpa continues to be Robie’s greatest advocate and refuses to believe that dreams can’t come true.

I enjoyed the characters, which are three-dimensional, and reflect the complex emotions that face us in every walk of life. There are moments of tragedy in the novel, as well as triumph that keep the reader entranced. I definitely recommend The Green Years, which transforms us back in time to see how the working class lived in the depression years. 

Other novels by A.J. Cronin include The Keys of the Kingdom, The Citadel, and The Stars Look Down. I intend to sample a few more of Cronin’s work in the future. His works are worth the read.