Thursday, August 21, 2014
Shoulder the Sky - D E Stevenson
The troubles of our proud and angry dust
Are from eternity, and shall not fail,
Bear them we can, and if we can we must.
Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.
Shoulder the Sky is the third book in the Dering trilogy. I've read Vittoria Cottage, the first in the trilogy but not the next book, Music in the Hills. I'm a little hampered by what's available at Open Library & they have lots of incomplete series. However, I've noticed that with D E Stevenson's novels, it doesn't matter as she manages to put you in the picture, & as I had very little doubt that James & Rhoda would marry, I was unsurprised to find them returning from their honeymoon at the beginning of this book.
James has left the Army & decided to become a farmer, thanks to his uncle & aunt, Jock & Mamie Johnstone, who have made him their heir. Rhoda had a harder time deciding on marriage as she had the beginnings of a successful career as an artist in London & didn't see how she could combine marriage & her work. However, she has put aside her doubts & the young couple have moved to Boscath farm in Drumburly near the Scottish Borders. They have changed the family name to Dering Johnstone, in recognition of their new position & arrive in late autumn to set about putting their new home in order.
Jock & Mamie have put the farm house in order, even employing a cook, Miss Flockhart, known as Flockie. She is one of Stevenson's loyal retainers, a treasure in every way. She meets her new employers in an unusual way when they arrive in the middle of the night without a key & James climbs through her bedroom window to get in. Rhoda finds the isolation of Boscath & her lack of occupation a problem at first, especially as James spends his days out on the hills learning about his livestock & employees. However, after avoiding the studio fitted out for her for some time, the day comes when Rhoda's inspiration returns & she takes up the brushes again. Her growing love for the area & her new neighbours helps as well as the discovery of a new pupil, Duggie, the son of Mamie's cook, Lizzie, who was evacuated to Murath from Glasgow during the war & never left. Duggie has real talent & his lessons with Rhoda give him a purpose that had been lacking in his life until that point.
James & Rhoda soon get to know some of the neighbours, including Dr Adam Forrester & his sister, Nan. Adam has taken up a post as assistant to elderly Dr Black. He was recommended by one of the surgeons at his London hospital, a local man, Henry Ogylvie Smith. Nan had fallen in love with Henry & thought he loved her in return but his manner towards her changed abruptly & she thought she had imagined his love & felt foolish. Henry has a secret that prevents him proposing to Nan & they are both disconcerted when they meet again in Drumburly.
Not all the neighbours are pleasant. The Heddles are incomers who have bought Tassieknowe, an old house whose owner has recently died, & transformed it into a monstrosity. Fitted carpets, turquoise paint on the walls, ultra modern furniture, everything that the old families of the district despise. Miss Heddle is an odd woman, prone to hearing noises & believing that the previous owner, old Mr Brown, is still flitting around the house, even though he's dead. Her brother, Nestor, is selfish & arrogant. They have no idea how to farm the land, dismiss the shepherd who could tell them how to look after their stock properly & refuse to sell to Jock Johnstone who would look after the property in the right way.
As the first winter of James & Rhoda's marriage passes, they suffer with their neighbours from the isolation & extremes of bad weather. They also become part of the community & grow to love their new life. This is such a lovely story. I love books set in Scotland & winter stories most of all so I was predisposed to enjoy this one. The portrait of James & Rhoda's marriage is very tenderly presented & I loved the fact that Rhoda got back to work rather than just dwindling into a wife. Jock & Mamie are real characters & the Forresters are a very sympathetic pair. There was one coincidence that I could see coming & just thought was a little too convenient but, apart from that, Shoulder the Sky is a delightful book that is full of Stevenson's love of Scotland. Adam expresses this love of home very aptly as he sits on a hillside with James.
'Sometimes when I was in London, surrounded by piles of bricks and mortar, I used to feel quite sick with longing to see a hill ... a nice bald-faced, lowland hill with sheep upon it. I'd think of little bits of country that I knew: of a grey road zig-zagging up the side of a brae or a burn running in links through a green moss with wild flowers growing beside it. I'd see a huddle of hills with a gap between them and, through the gap, another hill, far off and blue with distance. I'd smell the sharp tang of bog-myrtle or a whiff of peat smoke ... and all this in a London street!' He smiled apologetically and added, 'I'd rather be a pauper here than a Dives in any other place.'
At the time of writing, there's a copy of Shoulder the Sky available at Anglophile Books.