A String in the Harp // by Nancy Bond


//published 1976//

I read a review for this book a while back over at Tales of the Marvelous, and as soon as Cheryl mentioned the word “Wales,” I was already hooked.  I couldn’t help grinning as I was reading her review, because she spoke about a wistfulness for Wales – a feeling that I also most definitely have, despite having never set foot in Wales (or anywhere outside of the Americas!).  For me, I think it began by reading Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain as a child.  These books are, of course, set in the mythical land of Prydain, which Alexander admitted was completely inspired by Wales.  Then, later, as an adult, I devoured the Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters.  These remain some of my all-time favorite books.  Although set in England, Cadfael himself is Welsh, and many of the stories take place in Wales, as his home of Shrewsbury is just across the border.

The point is, somewhere along the line I became enamored with Wales, and have yearned to go there for as long as I can really remember.  (So if someone would like to buy me a plane ticket and then host me, I would be most grateful!)  So, as I mentioned earlier, as soon as I heard that A String in the Harp was set in Wales, I already knew that I wanted to read it.

The story focuses on an American family.  David, the father, is a professor who has accepted a year-long position at a university in (obviously) Wales.  His wife died in a car accident a year before the story takes place, and David has only brought his two youngest children with him – Peter and Becky – leaving Jen, who is around fifteen, back home in the States with her aunt and uncle.  However, as our story opens, Jen is traveling to visit her family for the Christmas holidays.  She is looking forward to seeing everyone, and also looking forward to a bit of a vacation.

wales Borth

Borth, Wales (source)

When she arrives, it is to find her family still somewhat estranged from one another.  David has buried himself in work; Peter (age twelve-ish) is bitter and rebellious about being in Wales at all; and Becky (age ten-ish) is doing her best to adjust to her new normal.  It doesn’t take long for Jen to get caught in the midst of the animosity between David and Peter – all of their conversations seem to end in arguments, and they both want her to help the other see reason.

Wales itself is a bit terrifying – rugged and desolate, dark and cold.  It doesn’t take long for Jen to be a bit glad that she is only supposed to stay for a few weeks.

Around the time of Jen’s arrival, Peter goes on a long walk (the only thing, he points out, that there really is to do for entertainment).  While out, he discovers a small item, which he later identifies as a harp key.  Peter begins to carry the key about with him (although he isn’t sure why).  Soon, the key begins to show him visions of the past, all centered around a harper from centuries earlier, Taliesin.

This is not a story of high excitement, or the type that will keep you up all hours of the night anxiously turning pages.  However, the characters are drawn so well that it is virtually impossible to not be pulled into their lives and their story, watching the family slowly learn to work through their grief.  Despite the fact that David’s wife has died before the book opens, and we never meet her, she is still an important character – a woman completely beloved and painfully mourned by the family she has left behind.

To me, this is a genuine coming of age book.  “Coming of age” does not usually involve swords and wild adventures, or ridiculous road trips and crazy parties.  It’s the quiet absorption of the fact that being an adult doesn’t mean magically knowing all the answers.

All her life, Jen reflected now, she had truly believed that with age came wisdom; that when she finally grew up all the complexities she wrestled with would straighten themselves out for her and she would be able to deal with life confidently, with perfect assurance.  she had only to wait.

But it wasn’t so.  Her father, who ought to know all the answers by this time, had just told her that he, too, was still groping.  Oddly, Jen felt closer to him at this moment than she ever had before; he was as human as she and as much in need of reassurance and faith.

The magic is secondary in this book.  The actual story is a family learning to rebuild themselves, and this story is beautifully crafted.  The gradual awakening of spring (because of course Jen doesn’t actually go back stateside after Christmas), which parallels the family’s slow growth back into a solid unit, is wonderfully done.

Although the story starts with Jen, Bond spends quite a bit of time with both Jen and Peter, and even some with Becky.  These small glimpses into all of their lives allow the reader to absorb the way that grief – even over the same event – touches everyone differently.

Becky kept telling Peter it would get easier for him, but it didn’t because Peter wouldn’t let it.  He had to hang on to his hardness and hate or he couldn’t survive.  Without the hate, there were only the intolerable homesickness and the desperate longing for his mother. These hurt far too much for him to bear alone.

To me, that is almost a perfect paragraph.  Peter’s entire motivation summarized in just a few sentences, giving so much insight into how he is struggling.  And it is especially beautiful when contrasted with Peter’s thoughts later in the story –

It was all woven into the same pattern: Gwilym, Rhian, the Key, his own family, Wales, and a feeling sometimes so powerful it made the back of his throat ache.  The pattern was right, it was working itself out.  People spent their lives weaving patterns, borrowing bits from one another, but making each pattern different.  Peter was part of Rhian’s, she was part of his; they overlapped but didn’t match.

All in all, a beautifully crafted book that I would recommend to children and adults both.  It is well deserving of its Newbery Honor – a story with depth, wisdom, and beauty.