THESE BOOKS ARE like stones - simple without being easy to explain, homely, but timeless and expressive of the earth's long history. They are also, it must be said, as alien to the trappings of our modern Western world as a potsherd unearthed on a construction site. Something to be marveled over for a moment, something offering an elusive glimpse of sturdier, plainer times when we were closer to each other and to the soil, but finally something to be laid aside when one must face again the reality of the bulldozer.
Alan Garner's four short stories about four generations of a working-class family in Cheshire, England, from the Victorian period up to World War II, remind the reader of how far we have come away from our roots and thereby from an understanding of our place in the scheme of things. The quartet made me sad. It reminded me of how my mother used to say, urgently, "We have to get back to the land." But we cannot go back. There are too many of us now, and we haven't any choice but to go forward.
This is not to say that these stories have no value. Their beauty is indisputable. But it is hard to know whether to-day's children will recognize that beauty or the loss of what Garner is talking about. If they do not, it will not be because they are children and therefore limited in their perceptions, but rather because they have been born into a time so utterly different that these tales will seem foreign in more ways than their obvious Englishness. The concerns of the four child-heroes will not be their concerns, although they will appreciate Mary's venturing into the dary quarry of The Stone Book, Joseph's romantic choice of career in Granny Reardun, the dashing Uncle Charlie of The Aimer Gate, and especially William's joy in his new sledge and the excitement of sleding in the dark down a high hill of perfect snow in Tom Fobble's day. But to read the stories for events alone is to miss what these events are demonstrating, and so wistful.
Another stumbling block will certainly be Garner's entirely fitting but uncompromising use of idioms from that part of England - phrases like "donkey-stoning," "eat your pobs," "raunging," and dozens more, some of which come clear through context, and many of which remain baffling for all their attractiveness. Granny Reardun, the second of the series, is particularly difficult; the final volume, Tom Fobble's Day, is somewhat easier. Without these idioms, the stories would lose much of their flavor, but they make the series rough going, and a dictionary will be no help at all.
The pictures do not help, either. They are full-page etchings, somber for the most part, almost gloomy in their stark simplicity, and they show objects as often as people, with little detail. They are appropriate but they are dark and somehow too adult.
One could say that modern children need to look, through stories like these, at what life is really all about, except that the life they know is not really all about these things, or at least its meaning can no longer be illuminated very well in this way. So Garner's four tales become a reminiscence, like Dylan Thomas' Child's Christmas in Wales, though largely without that piece's humor and greater accessibilty. Yes, they are splendidly written strong and simple, their characters solidly real, their settings finely drawn, and Garner, author of the much-praised The Owl Service, deserves much praise again for their creation. But a book must be able to communicate with its intended audience, and these books were meant for English children, not middle-aged American reviewers. Will they speak to American children? I don't know. Try them and see. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, by Michael Foreman