This afternoon I read The House that Sailed Away by Pat Hutchins, in between reading Petra’s new library books to her over and over, dealing with several loads of washing, making a quick trip to the supermarket, and cooking a huge pot of soup with Petra’s help. Busy, busy…
But, the book. I loved it as a small child because of its gleeful, anarchic inventiveness. The house simply floats off down the street. There are pirates and desert islands and treasure, and a family taking all the insanity in stride. And the illustrations, by Hutchins’ husband, are great. It would be almost 30 years since I last read it, but I’ve remembered it fondly and now that I’m spending time in the children’s section of the library, and reading Pat Hutchins’ picture books to Petra, it seemed like a good time for a reread. And I’m pleased to report that it’s as delightful now as it was then.
Often rereading childrens’ books is disappointing. The story can seem thin and underwritten, and the characters simple and flat in comparison with the wondrous construction you have stored in your childhood memory. Not in this case, however. Reading it as an adult reveals whole new dimensions to the book. I still like the piling up of ever-more-bizarre incidents and I still love the notion of just suddenly sailing away and having adventures. But now I can also appreciate the way the flights of fancy are juxtaposed with a sharp and funny depiction of ordinary family life. The father thinks his mother-in-law is a drunken menace. The mother has a young baby and exists at a slight remove from the rest of the family. She finishes conversations that everyone has already moved on from, forgets things, and generally floats along in a bit of a daze, saving her attention for putting the baby to bed and keeping him from harm. It’s funny, but it’s also accurate, as I can attest. I was out of sync with the world for months and months after Petra arrived. And Grandma is a force of nature, bossing and complaining her way through the world. Hutchins obviously admires Grandma as well – at the end of the book, she’s kind enough to find her a husband who admires her drive and vigour.
I can also admire the wonderful, conversational language. Here’s the opening page or so:
It had rained every day since Grandma arrived in London. Every single day. Not the nice fat sort of rain that makes gentle plopping noises on your rainhat, or umbrella if you happened to have one, which Grandma hadn’t as she’d left it on the overnight bus from Yorkshire, but the nasty thin sort of rain that runs down your nose and the tops of your Wellington boots and makes your hair stick out all over the place, especially if it’s curly, which Grandma’s was.
In fact it was the sort of weather you wouldn’t turn a dog out in, if you liked dogs that is, which Grandma didn’t anyway.
Grandma sighed deeply as she gazed out of the window. “Just think,” she said gloomily, “if I hadn’t done my ankle in at the Over 60’s do, I would be visiting strange new places on the Cook’s Coach and Paddle Boat Mystery Tour, instead of sitting here staring at this awful rain.”
She handed a curler to Mother, who was trying to set Grandma’s hair, which Father said stuck up like steel wool after Mother had cleaned the inside of the oven with it.
“And if daft Betty from the shop hadn’t shoved half a box of soap flakes all over the dance floor, I wouldn’t have slipped in the first place.”
“Or if she’d kept you off the vicar’s home-made wine,” Father murmured.
Grandma ignored him.
I love Grandma’s colloquial language. And the way the family relationships are established so efficiently and effectively. And the book’s naughtiness. I don’t know that modern children’s books get to have casually dysfunctional families like this.