childhood memory can be likened to a repository seemingly without bottom, roiling with fragrant impressions and bitterly pungent aftertastes, the store of which, bidden or not, one must peer into every so often. "Cider with Rosie" fell into my lap sometime late in my malevolent teenage years, and contained in it was the discovery of a warm spot of flowered sunlight: this was a tale of growing up like no other I had come across, and I savored each word. How wonderful it was to find, in Laurie Lee's recounting of his English boyhood, a story related in such mellifluous detail, the characters lushly painted against a multi-hued Cotswoldian afternoon, a loving account of poor people living simply and well, doing each other no great harm, taking care of their own in a sort of muddled congenial order. I spent many a pleasant day playing the child's game of replacement: my own history with this shiny new borrowed one.
Lee was a poet whose deft passage into prose carried with it much of the rhythm and accuracy of the poet's language. Witness his lively one-sentence description of a dead cat: "...the crowded, rotting, silent-roaring city of a cat's grub-captured carcass." His descriptions are compelling and thorough, the unfiltered vision of a delighted child growing up amid continuous sensory assault. He discovers water:
"You could pump it in pure blue gulps out of the ground; you could swing on the pump handle and it came out sparkling like liquid sky. And it broke and ran and shone on the tiled floor, or quivered in a jug, or weighted your clothes with cold. You could drink it, draw with it, froth it with soap, swim beetles across it, or fly it in bubbles in the air. You could put your head in it, and open your eyes, and see the sides of the bucket buckle, and hear your caught breath roar, and work your mouth like a fish, and smell the lime from the ground."
Lee carefully colors in the village populace with the same kindly, good-humored palette as he does his large family, at the head of which is a much-loved befuddled matriarch. He allows the reader to sit and visit awhile with each character, take their leave and amble over for a fresh introduction, pausing to meet his shaggy, amiable Uncle Ray or Rosie of the polished pumpkin face, with whom he shares secret cider and a warm amber-colored afternoon underneath a wagon of fresh-cut hay. We call out a greeting to Granny Trill in her tiny cottage filled with the smells of dry linen, tea caddies and "the sweeter tang of old flesh," who "always seemed to be chewing, sliding her folded gums together in a daylong ruminative cud. I took this to be a trick of age, a kind of slowed-up but protracted feasting." We're told of the death of Hannah and Joseph Brown, grown feeble and infirm, separated by well-meaning authorities in the Workhouse because they can no longer take care of themselves, and who quickly die of old age and fright, because they have never been apart before. Lee's voice is never judgmental; his is a measured story teller's delivery, matter-of-factly revealing the juxtaposition of benevolence and unwitting cruelty in village life.
The American edition, titled "The Edge of Day," is illustrated by John Ward, who reproduces in spidery pen detail the frenzied wine-making seasons of Granny Wallon's kitchen, Mother Lee's hands cradling a china cup (china collecting being the one thing at which this wayward collector excelled), and Jones' terrorist goat, "reeking with power and white in the moon." His scratchy yet fluid line is a natural outgrowth of the words which give it life. This is a fine example of words and the drawn line working in unison, each gently supporting the other, closely weaving a superb tale.
"Cider with Rosie" ends on a note of change: his sisters are about to get married, the tempo of village life speeds up with the death of the squire, the installation of a younger vicar and the arrival of more accessible means of transport. And Laurie Lee begins to write poetry. The canvas has been finely and carefully wrought, each brushstroke lovingly examined: Lee leaves us a sensory delight for which we are the better. Change in my own life happened many years and pleasant cidrous afternoons later, but on that day, in the wake of finishing the book, it certainly seemed as though some magical shift had taken place.