LAND OF GREEN GINGER is one of those books that I have been meaning to read for over thirty years but have never got round to. Winifred Holtby came to my attention when I read A Testament Of Youth by her best friend, Vera Brittain, in the late 70’s. I loved the title of Holtby’s book, all the more so because I knew that it was a real street in Hull. Now I have finally got round to it.
We start in the dog days of the nineteenth century when an older missionary meets a much younger girl on a trip back to England. They get married and head out to the Cape Colony. She swiftly falls pregnant and dies in childbirth their daughter, our heroine, Joanna Burton. Joanna is sent back to Yorkshire to be raised by her two maiden aunts. When she is eight, she sees the street name ‘A Land of Green Ginger’ and her romantic imagination is fired, she will travel the world and see lands of green ginger. All this is thwarted when she turns 18; she fails to matriculate and her father dies. He leaves a will but no money. Disaster looms, the outbreak of war brings her a job as a nurse to wounded soldiers and here she meets Teddy Leigh. Tall blond and handsome, he tells her that he has been given the world to wear as a gold ball and she falls for him. They marry in haste.
The scene is now set. He is invalided out of the army and an outdoors life is prescribed for him. What he wanted was to go to Cambridge and become a clergyman. The life of a Yorkshire hill farmer is something he is neither suited to nor inclined to. Disaster looms. Through all this Joanna continues to dream of far off lands, the dreams shut out the reality. Both their lives and those of their children have been blighted by war, none of them dead but all of them diminished.
Into this dismal life rides an encampment of foresters from Finland. They have been brought over by the local landlord to transform his forestry. Much as now, the incomers from the East were resented by most of the people living in the village. Szermai, the dashing leader of the Finns, becomes the Leighs’ lodger. By this time Teddy is largely bedridden not to mention depressed. Through all this his wife remains faithful and loyal whilst still dreaming of travelling to far off lands.
To tell you more would be to ruin the story and that would be a shame because LAND OF GREEN GINGER is a wonderful book. At times the awfulness of living a life that none of the main characters chose or wanted grinds you down. This was a time without a social security net to catch you if you fell, even if you were falling because of injuries received fighting for your country. Ultimately the novel ends with hope. It seems timely to read this now as once again nationalism seems to be raising its head in Europe and to remember the perils of letting it run unchecked.
LAND OF GREEN GINGER by Winifred Holtby
Published by Virago
Paperback £8.99, Kindle 99p