The Children at Green Meadows
Review by Prabhu Viswanathan (June 10, 2006)
Folks, sit back, take a deep breath, make yourselves comfortable, switch off the phone, and be prepared to stay up just a little tonight. Keep handy the following...
- A high absorption handkerchief and a squeeze bucket
- An ability to swallow large lumps
- A dog, a cat, a horse, a guinea pig... just something to lick, lap or lie by you
I'm going to tell you a little secret. It's called The Children at Green Meadows, and you'd better pick up that book right now, because in the next hour or two it's going to crack your stony little heart.
Francis, Clare and Sam, three poor kids on the block, have grown up with a tired mom, a crochety dad, a moody grandma, and the haughty Mister Black, who won't play with the children so much as condescend to allow being stroked and spoilt.
Green Meadows is a sad memory of what once used to be a rambling old menagerie cum farm cum happy home with fantail pigeons flying around, animals wandering everywhere, and fresh air and flowers enriching the lives of people living there. Now it's a dilapidated world where the garden is a forgotten piece of undergrowth, and while Mother works ceaselessly, and Great Bravery medal winner Dad now inhabits a humiliating wheelchair because of war wounds, Grandma hides a kind heart by grouching endlessly and rather unfairly at the constantly helpful children. The only recourse for their troubles will be to sell Green Meadows and move to a smaller place, but stubbornly nostalgic Grandma will hear none of it.
But there is a strange wind of fortune about to blow the way of the brave Francis, the hot tempered Clare, and the serious Sam, and it's coming from the huge housing estate just across from the farm.
Dog-lover Francis likes nothing better than to take Paddy, his beautiful unreal animal, for long walks and games. New neighbour Dan spies on one of his imaginary sessions, and proceeds to tease him mercilessly till Scout Francis can't bear it any more. After a few short moments, Dan walks away laughing, and Francis limps away with a bruised eye and a shameful heart.
But the Great Animal Lover up in the sky has been watching, and Dan's about to lose his own beloved Rex, because the rules of the housing estate demand no pets. Large hearted Francis—in a peace deal brokered by Clare—agrees to keep him, and from then on the family's lives change. Pretty soon there's a kitten and a rabbit, and then of course Flash the old pony, who has been heroically rescued by the courageous Francis from a fire at the grocers shop in the village.
There are lessons to be learned from within "Green Meadows Zoo," and from the Marshall family. The Marshalls never take any reward for kindness performed, and Dan learns how it is to be unselfish and generous. Pale and thin Rita glories in the fresh and healthy air, and her natural shyness is conquered. Sid and Joe, two hardworking handymen, find themselves a loving family, and while one discovers his green thumb, the other discovers a home for his pigeons.
Then a horrid Growling descends on the Farm.
Sir Giles Heston is a famous surgeon who is constantly travelling and leaving behind his chained Alsatian, Duke, in the inadequate care of Bill Harrison, his chauffeur. Bill's home is a lodge by the gates of Sir Giles' mansion, and within stone throwing distance of the jealous and naughty children who live in the estate bordering the dogs short chain and tiny living space. Used as target practice, Duke is driven to madness regularly and soon acquires a false reputation for being the fiercest, growliest, bitiest dog on the planet. Brought to the farm by Bill, for a few idyllic days, he too gives in to the enormous love that is bestowed upon him.
But one tragic, ugly day, when there is no one around, he is stoned again. This time, when one particularly vicious missile finds the middle of his head, he breaks loose and chases after the villainous children, finally escaping to Bill's lodge.
When Francis discovers him there in the middle of the night, even he is fearful of approaching the animal, which is now almost beside itself with rage. Sir Giles and Bill, who arrive shortly, are no more able to pacify Duke than the boy, but when the surgeon decides that the dog has to be put down, brave and kind Francis walks (in a trance) to the animal, and soon realises that it's a trapped chain that is hurting and frightening the dog. Witnessing this large-hearted endeavour on the part of the boy, Sir Giles is mightily impressed, and offers to come and meet his family.
In the ensuing visit, the children's father goes away for treatment in the hope that it will make his back better—at least to the point of hobbling, and perhaps only with a single stick required to help him do so.
In the meantime, destiny drives their way in the elegant and wealthy form of the daughter of one of Grandma's oldest and sadly deceased friend. When she reveals that her mother had left a fortune to the welfare of animals, two and two make an exciting four, and Green Meadows is now reborn as heaven to old, sick, and homeless animals. The Marshalls (minus the hospitalised dad) move into a prettily done-up home in the stables, and all is almost happily over.
When I read this book as a child, I had unashamed tears as I reached the end of the story. I think I could sense even in those innocent days what it meant to have a happy and healthy family, and I longed that the Marshalls should have the same. It may or may not bring upon you a similar range of emotions, but I will forever hold close to my heart the joyful memory of the children's father coming back home to them. Read on for yourselves, and read it again and again like I did, and then wipe your tears of happiness and read it again. Or if you are too much of an adult to weep, just swallow that shameful lump that refuses to go away and smile your guilty smile.
For me, this is one of the dark horses of Enid Blyton's work. Yes, Francis is the out-and-out hero of the story, with Clare having a minimal role to play, and Sam playing a cute and lovable (though hopeless at whistling) character. But there are deeper emotions flowing here... of hurt and injury, hate and poverty... or maybe it's the way they have been interwoven thats makes the whole reading experience somewhat wrenching.
Maybe I'm just a silly old fellow with a sentimental streak and a momentary vulnerability. Maybe you will dismiss this story as a childish tale, and never read my reviews again.
But maybe, just maybe you will reach for that handkerchief...