Expectations and generalisations are an odd thing. When I first read the the blurb for The House at Silvermoor and saw it is set in a South Yorkshire mining community, I hesitated. But I decided to place my trust in the author, Tracy Rees, because I read and loved her Amy Snow. What a good decision it was.
Inspired by her grandfather Len, Rees researched coal mining at the turn of the century. This research informs every page but never interferes with her story of Tommy Green from the mining village of Grindley and Josie Westgate of nearby Arden. When they are twelve they meet in a country lane, talking over a dropped bunch of bluebells. Rees is excellent at world creation: the hard grind of the mining families, the lack of options, the durability and sense of inevitability of the families, the autocratic families that rule the mines, the temptation of the unknown. Tommy is destined to work in the pits of the Sedgewick family of Silvermoor where his father and brothers work, where his brother Dan died in an accident. Josie’s father and brothers work in the nearby pits owned by Winthrop Barridge, where standards are lower, the work more hazardous, and no compensation for widows of miners killed at work. Her sisters work at the mine too, above ground, washing coal.
As the story starts, it is Tommy’s last day at school. His destiny is to work in the pits despite wanting more, something different, despite his dreams. Dismissed by his schoolteacher as the best of a bad lot and accused of false pride, Tommy is tongue-tied. ‘In quite real terms, my tongue had lodged in my throat in a glutinous lump, and I could neither swallow nor speak’. That night, in a rite of manhood, he is taken poaching at midnight by his father to Heston Manor, the rundown estate owned by Barridge and patrolled by guards. Entrance is forbidden but food is scarce so the risk is worth it. Josie’s sister Alice is marrying and she runs to her secret place in the grounds of Heston Manor to pick wildflowers. She is caught by the gamekeeper Paulson. She lies her way out of an awkward situation, runs towards home and bumps into Tommy. It is a lovely meeting between two adolescents, on the brink of their lives, both rebels, both smart enough to talk their way out of trouble, and both capable of getting themselves into trouble.
The relationship between Tommy and Josie is at the heart of this novel as they navigate the difficult paths deemed to be their fate. Both want more, both struggle with restriction and each supports the other. Into the picture come Arden shopkeeper Dulcie Embry, who inherits the village shop from her uncle and is determined to prove it is a job for a woman, and who becomes a particular friend of Josie; a mysterious ghost that haunts Heston Manor and rides a white stallion; and Lord Walter Sedgewick, son of the earl and five years younger that Tommy, who was christened on Tommy’s birthday. This connection runs throughout the story in ways I did not expect and opens up new friendships and loyalties that cross the rigidities of class.
It is the turn of the century, the promise of the 1900s brings expectations, new opportunities and tradition challenged. This is a story of love, loyalty, the fight against exploitation, the hope of goodness. It is the story of a family mystery and a romance, bound up with the rapidly changing social history of its time. Excellent. A note about the cover design; beautiful, but completely irrelevant to the story.
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THE HOUSE AT SILVERMOOR by @AuthorTracyRees #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4lK via @SandraDanby