Why you should read The Runaways, by Adrienne Byrne

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Winner of the Hesperus ‘Uncover a Children’s Classic Competition’, 2013

I was about ten when I discovered this book in my local library. It was the original title Linnets and Valerians that first enchanted and captured my imagination. After many years, I suddenly remembered the book; but the memories were impressionistic. My recent re-reading has brought back the details, and given an adult perspective and appreciation.

In the 1967 afterword to my paperback edition, the author speaks of the countryside in which she lived and how the stories and superstitions she was told about it inspired the richly magical and other-worldly elements and characters of her story. She has written descriptive passages of great beauty, both of the natural world and the immanence of this magic. An imaginative child, I accepted completely the co-existence of real life and magic. There is a rather wonderful passage in Chapter 11, expressing the point of view of ten-year-old Robert:

Robert’s clear voice once more took up the narrative. He, like all children, could use exquisite tact when telling a true story to grown-ups. He knew one must not ask too much of their credulity. Things are seen and heard by the keen senses of the young which are not experienced by the failing powers of their elders, but as powers fail pride increases and the elders do not like to admit this. Therefore, when told by the young of some occurrence outside the range of their own now most limited experience, they read them a lecture on the iniquity of telling lies. This can lead to unpleasantness all round…

There follows a summary of those occurrences omitted from his otherwise eventful tale! For The Runaways is also an adventure story, involving four resourceful children; assorted adults, both ‘good’ and ‘wicked’; a dog; a monkey; a cat; an owl…  and of course, the bees, the children’s protectors at all times. It is about the effect of past malicious actions, and how those actions are finally redeemed.

A thread of gently ironic humour runs throughout, and each child is beautifully drawn with that humour and insight; flawed individuals with complex inner lives and their different perspectives and responses to challenges and loss. Nan the eldest, practical and reflective, with a strong sense of responsibility for her younger siblings, is movingly given her first experience of solitude in the chapter ‘Nan’s Parlour’. Robert: inventive and impulsive, with an amusing and engaging sense of self-importance. Eight-year-old Timothy, a sensitive, more intuitive boy, and six-year-old Betsy who ‘always emerged from anywhere as though shot from a catapult’ but who reveals a touching and instinctive generosity.

As an adult, the story ends for me with the chapter ‘Singing in the Wood’ and its last line. ‘Deep inside the hives the bees could be heard singing’. I don’t think I needed the ‘Happy Ever After’ chapter as a child either, as I initially found I couldn’t remember the ending as an adult. However, there are those who will want the ending as it is. Enjoy!

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Republished with permission, this article forms the Preface to the Hesperus Press edition of The Runaways.  Elizabeth Goudge, The Runaways (Hesperus Press, 1964 repr.2014), 269 pages.