This summer I unearthed a few boxes underneath some shelves in my bedroom in Bavaria. Those boxes had been in that corner for so long that I didn’t remember what was in them. It turned out that they contained a lot of old books, some of them old childhood books. I got rid of a lot of them but kept some that I recalled having liked. One of them was Juttas großer Tag (German for Jutta’s Big Day) by Helga Marten, another The Silver Crown by Robert O’Brien.
Jutta’s Big Day (this is my translation, I doubt that the book was ever translated) is about kids messing with boats, one of my favourite topics to read about. If I lived on a river, a lake, or the sea I’d definitively have a small boat to mess about with. I “inherited” the book from one of my older cousins. Her name is still written on the inside of the cover.
Jutta is the eldest of four children. She is hoping to become a teacher, but she also dreams of restoring an old river boat that her father bought second-hand before his death. Her father used to be a truck driver, was in an accident and eventually died of his injuries, before he could fix up the boat. He wanted to turn it into a floating grocery shop for the freight shipping crews on the nearby canal. But he died before he could finish the job and ever since the boat had been quietly rotting at its berth at the back of the family’s garden (which is on a small river that flows into the main canal). At the beginning of the novel, it’s rumoured that a new lock is being built on the canal which would enable more shipping to pass through. Suddenly it seems feasible to fix up the boat after all. The problem is the poverty of the family after the father’s death. Jutta’s mother would rather sell the old boat. Jutta convinces her mother to renovate the boat instead and with the help of her brothers manages against all odds to fix it up, despite opposition from doubters and sabotage attempts from rivals. I found it quite thrilling as a child and the last scene in the book when Jutta and her mother take the boat out onto the canal still gives me goosebumps.
I don’t know when the book was written (it doesn’t say), but from the feel of it and internal evidence it must have been sometime in the 1960s. It’s maybe slightly dated and perhaps not very subtle about promoting the right kind of morals (“thou shalt not steal” is one subplot) and the rivals are rather stereotypical bad guys but overall I enjoyed rereading it. All the tinkering with the engine of the old boat and the work involved in fixing it up reminded me a lot about my dad. He was always tinkering with cars or renovating our house (which we also bought in a run-down condition). Our whole family worked on our house during my teenage years. I guess that made me relate to the story in addition to the river romance.
I’d recommend it for children and adults who like children’s lit, but I’m afraid it isn’t translated and out-of-print in German. I couldn’t find out anything about the author, so I don’t know if she wrote any other books.
Robert O’Brian, who wrote The Silver Crown, did write other books: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (a very good read about some super intelligent rats) and Z for Zachariah (a post-apocalyptic novel that I found thought-provoking, depressing, and scary when I read it in school as a young teenager). I ought to reread both of these, too.
The Silver Crown is a fantasy novel set in 20th century America. It’s quite a slim volume, less than 200 pages in my edition, but I remember being very struck by it when I first read it, which must have been when I was around 11. It’s about a ten-year-old, Ellen, who is given a silver crown on her birthday and loses her family on the same day. Strange and awful things happen in her town and she decides to hitchhike to her aunt, who’s the only family she has left and the only one she trusts. On the way, she is pursued by strangers but also finds new friends to help her. The novel is at once very realistic in the description of her travels but fantastic in the workings of the silver crown, which seems to enhance Ellen’s mental powers. Otherwise, Ellen would be rather unbelievably resourceful for a ten-year-old. It’s very atmospheric, but kind of muted, with quiet passages on her travels when nothing much happens and she might as well be on a normal hike, and intense passages when she and her friend are being pursued by or hiding from sinister figures. In the end, Ellen finds out the secret of the silver crown and makes a portentous decision.
The book works very well as a fairly short novel. Some things are only hinted at and left to the reader’s imagination. It’s very evocative and compelling and I’m sure, were it published today, it would be spread out as a trilogy, which would destroy part of its weird charm. This book, as well as the other books by O’Brien I mentioned are still available. I recommend all of them, but Z is rather grim.
Keep safe, world.