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Once in a very long while, we readers come across a gem of a book, a real treasure that we want others to savor as well. Such was my encounter with A Month in the Country by James L. Carr. A small book, a novella really, it can be read easily in one sitting, but small refers only to the number of pages, not to Carr's monumental effort to create an homage to much that we love about England.
The story is a simple one. A young man, Tom Birkin, returns home after serving with the British in Flanders during WWI to learn that his wife has deserted him. His experience in the trenches during some of the worst fighting of the war has left him with a stammer and a facial tic. He has, however, a degree in art restoration and has been hired by a struggling Yorkshire church to uncover and perhaps restore a mural that was rumored to have been painted some 600 years before in the apse of the church.
Because Tom has no money, he lives in the belfry of the church whilst he works on the project. He gradually becomes immersed in the life of the country folk as they reach out to him and, even as he is restoring the masterpiece in the church, he also becomes restored.
Other characters as clearly and vividly drawn as any by Charles Dickens are returning veteran and archeologist, Charles Moon, who has been hired by the same person as Tom to locate a distant ancestor of hers, Piers Hebron, who had been excommunicated around 1373 and buried outside the church pale. If he is located, the fence is to be moved so that his grave will be on church property.
Moon had been a captain and was a genuine war hero, having been awarded the Military Cross for bravery for rescuing a comrade out on the line, then returning to fetch another who was screaming in pain even though that fellow was past saving. Moon is working while waiting to go to Basra in modern day Iraq to work on uncovering a ziggurat. He has an ulterior motive in digging for Mr. Hebron: he knows there are remains of an Anglo Saxon place of worship there with lots of cemetery jars...presumably filled with valuable artifacts.
We have the Ellerbeck family, consisting of the father, a stationmaster, who also serves as a Methodist minister, his wife, who feeds and nurtures Tom, 14-year-old Kathy Ellerbeck who comes frequently to the church to play hymns on a gramophone and keep Tom company.
Then there is the vicar, Arthur Keach, and his lovely wife, Alice, whom Tom compares to Botticelli's Primavera.
There is much history contained in this brief love story. There is also a touch of mystery as well as subtle humor. At one point, Tom admits to being in love, and we readers think at that point, it's the lovely Alice, but, no, it's the fellow who 600 years earlier had painted the mural he was uncovering painstakingly inch by beautiful inch. He's in love with the painter's knowledge, his technique, his creativity, the splendidness of his creation.
It is a love letter to the sturdy workers of earlier generations who carefully built sturdy churches which lasted hundreds of years, who built stoves which could endure a direct hit from a shell burst and still work, to the gentle folk of good humor who welcomed a stranger, fed him, included him in their church activities and it's a love letter to the English language. It's beautifully written with allusions, alliteration, sensory details, etc.
My favorite passage, written 50 years after the idyllic title month, occurs at the end:
"We can ask and ask, but we can't have again what once seemed ours forever—the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They've all gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass."
Beaver Area Memorial Library Board member and member of The Book and Play Club of Beaver