Bildungsromanesque: The Green Years Review

This review is on a book called The Green Years. Today is Earth Day. Call it serendipity and on with the review.

Blurb for The Green Years by A.J. Cronin

The Green Years is a 1944 novel by A. J. Cronin which traces the formative years of an Irish orphan, Robert Shannon, who is sent to live with his draconian maternal grandparents in Scotland. An introspective child, Robert forms an attachment to his roguish great-grandfather, who draws the youngster out of his shell with his raucous ways.

My Review

A Variety of Celts and Bretons

It seems a common enough premise–after death of parents, young child is taken to live with some relations or adoptive family, initially stern, but gradually softening to them as they grow up, learning all the lessons they need through mistakes and the power of friendship and love. It is after the manner of Sentimental Tommy by J.M. Barrie, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, and even, intially at least, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. A formula for success in every iteration, though with vastly different characters, writing style, content, and context.

If it’s not the Welsh, it’s the Scottish, and if it’s not the Scottish, it’s the Irish. The Green Years by A.J. Cronin tells the coming-of-age of one young Robert Shannon. True, he is not fully Irish, his mother being strong Scots, but his last name and his religion, as well his first years growing up in Belfast, have made him a bit of a foreigner and oddity among his family. After his mother’s premature death, he is taken in by his mother’s parents to live with them, their other son and daughter, and his great-grandmother and great-grandfather, from opposite sides of the family.

A Verdant Contrast

The narrative voice in this novel is Shannon’s narrating his own recollections, reminding me of How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn, which is also narrated by its protagonist, Huw, through his growing up years. And it seems like there may be an affinity between the two, given their close publication dates (How Green in 1939, Green Years in 1944), and of course the superficial similarity of their titles.

But despite these seeming correlations, and the fact that they are both, tangentially, bildungsromans, their scope and tone vary so wildly as to almost seem ridiculous to mention them in the same breath.

How Green Was My Valley is a biography of loss: loss of family, of sanity, of faith, of love, of livelihood, and of innocence. While of course The Green Years touches on some aspects of these elements, like loss of family, faith, and innocence, it is in a much less catastrophic and existential manner.

How Green Was My Valley is a litany of wrongs, an awakening to the destruction of the Welsh people and their way of life, after years of suppression and exploitation, the reality of a child having to grow up and learn about life while caught in the throes of social reform and family divisions; The Green Years is a comic and domestic drama of an oddball making his way in a new environment, committing the follies and faux pas of youth and inexperience, influenced and disillusioned at different times by different people, and encountering the mortifications of inferiority, poverty, and embarrassing relatives.

The tone, too, is starkly contrasted. Huw’s voice is Welsh, realistic, and tragic, narrating with maturity the events he witnesses his older siblings going through as a young child. While it can express beauty and comedy, it is mainly limited to those events that are defined by those characteristics, never seeing a different side to something in the moment. Rob’s voicing throughout is bit self-deprecating and full of humorous understatement, turning a description from regular to ridiculous in one line of clever word-painting. While not unfamiliar with tragedy and giving in to episodes of duly dramatic doom and despair, Rob has a true Irish consciousness of life’s inherent farcical nature, often seeing himself as from a distance and able to commentate or mock as necessary.

In the end, The Green Years provides hope and fortune for its protagonist’s future; in How Green Was My Valley it seems the protagonist’s life has already ended by the time the story starts.

A Vacuous Comparison

So, we’re not here to talk about How Green Was My Valley.

The Green Years has much more in common with Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, still in keeping with the colour scheme as well as tonally throughout its episodes and characters. Both end up forming a close friendship with the child of a prosperous neighbour… although Robert’s friendship with Gavin starts a little less ice-cream-at-the-Sunday-school-picnic-y than Anne and Diana’s, and a little more bloody-nose-fighting-for-schoolyard-dominance-y.

Rob is an orphan like Anne, though overrun with non-parental relatives. To stretch a point, he is also quite taken with the wonders of nature and, although perhaps less romantic and literary about it than Anne, also decides to pursue his calling and education at college to achieve those dreams.

Though Anne’s story is largely rural and Rob’s is in town, in both there are a cast of local characters that weave in and out of the narrative lending colour and variety. Memorable episodes rich with description and vivid characterisation abound, lightly connected with prosy summaries of the intervals of routine and exploration that accompany growing up. Exploration of religion and personal beliefs about life is tangential but also significant, though of course Montgomery’s sphere is firmly Presbyterian and Cronin’s Roman Catholic.

A Vital Connection

Having given Green Gables its mention, it hardly seems fair to omit at least a passing reference to Sentimental Tommy, whose structure and events most closely resemble those of The Green Years. Both boys’ mothers left their hometowns and families for a man who then turned out to be no-good or sickly and dying, before dying themselves and leaving their orphaned young sons to be raised by members of the community they had abandoned.

In this town, both boys are given the chance, by the tutelage of a gruff teacher, to compete for a scholarship that would enable them to pursue further education that their adoptive families could never afford for them. They both lose in the eleventh hour despite initially appearing to have the advantage and are then apprenticed to a menial labouring job, only to have some last minute miraculous boon grant them the opportunity to leave their towns and pursue their chosen vocation. There is even a fair episode in both books, though the resemblance stops at the event itself.

The titular Tommy, though, could not be more different in temperament and personality than Rob, and he also has the benefit of not having to own up to his shortcomings and foibles because the all-knowing narrator can do that for him. Rob, narrating his own story, is acutely aware of his childhood naivete and speaks of it with candour and humorous understanding born of experience.

A Vert Conclusion

So, there ends my discussion of J.M. Barrie’s bildungsroman in a post where it has no business being. Curse you for a scene-stealer, Tommy!

I enjoyed reading Cronin’s The Green Years. It has a unique voice that gives all the people and events their own colour in a type of story that has been told many ways before. That said, I’m ambivalent about the way I’ve written this review because I feel like I haven’t given The Green Years enough room to speak for itself outside of the context of the other stories it reminded me of in different ways. But that is the only way I felt I could write it at this point.

Perhaps the answer to individualizing it more firmly is to continue with the series. Shout out to my sister for lending me this book in the first place and hyping it up enough I was excited to read it. I may have to borrow Shannon’s Way from you soon, too.

This has been my seventh Classics Club book review! Check out the rest of my list here.

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