Wednesday, November 21, 2018

October Book

In September, I posted about a book that I always think of in September. I meant to do one in October, but I didn't have a chance to revisit this old friend until now. So even though it's November, here's the October book: Mrs. Miniver, by Jan Struther.

No, not the movie, lovely though Greer Garson might have been in it, and important though it might have been in showing Americans what was at stake in the war they had so far (in 1940, when the book was compiled and published) refused to enter.


Nope. It's the book, the text of which is available online here, along with lots of notes about what was and wasn't "real," and what made it into the movie and what didn't. I think it's worth reading, but I'm biased.

Actually, this book could serve as a September book as well. It begins in September of 1937 and ends just after war is declared in September of 1939. In a series of slice-of-life vignettes set roughly two per month (evidence they originally appeared serialized), Mrs. Miniver reflects on life and its changes with perception and generosity.

And I associate it with Christmas. One of my favourite scenes is Christmas morning in 1937. The three children of the family--Toby, fiveish; Judy, nine; and Vin, who's old enough to be off at school (this is an upper-class family) but home for the holidays--come into their parents' bedroom and open their stockings. It's a lovely scene, "laced with an invisible network of affectionate understanding," as Mrs. Miniver watches how her children approach the stocking toys. As it's time for morning tea, the moment ends. 
Mrs. Miniver looked towards the window. The dark sky had already paled a little in its frame of cherry-pink chintz. Eternity framed in domesticity. Never mind. One had to frame it in something, to see it at all.

On a recent morning, I sat in our lakeside family room, waiting in the dark for the sun to sidle above the horizon, and thought of those lines.

My mother, about whom I write so much, first introduced me to Mrs. Miniver. I was probably in high school, and read it without much understanding of the greater issues or the context it which Jan Struther wrote. However, I found Mrs. Miniver perceptive and thoughtful and enjoyed the book for that reason.

My mother ensured that I wouldn't forget Mrs. Miniver when she gave me my very own copy of the book--a signed first edition, at that. More important to me is the sight of my name in her handwriting, on the note that accompanied this Christmas gift.


Now that I too live with a sense of impending doom, increasingly aware of treasured rights that some have never had and the rest of us can easily lose, I feel differently about the book. Yes, I see the social inequalities of the time and I recognize that they persist today. Yes, I see attitudes toward poverty and race that are, frankly, uncomfortable to sit with.

But I also see a writer struggling to express, in her time, the surprise and inevitability of war. The impossibility of conversation with people about politics. The similarities between her own young son and the young German-speaking boy at a Swiss pension where she stayed briefly. The pride in learning reef-knots and first aid and neighbourhood responsibilities. I feel a kinship with Jan Struther and her alter ego, Mrs. Miniver. 

Re-reading this book during the past few days has let me spend time both with the perceptive Mrs. Miniver and with my own insightful, brilliant, surprisingly sentimental mother.

What a gift it has been to read this book, in its imperfect glory, this season, and remember why it's a good book to read in any month. With gratitude.