The Way To Sattin Shore by Philippa Pearce
When this book was first published — forty years ago, in 1983 — I was 32 years of age and not paying such close attention to children’s publishing as I do now. Most of my free time was taken up with background reading for the book that would become Pen Friends (1988), a biographical novel about the friendship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. I was five years into my career in primary education so of course I was interested in and reading children’s books. Tom’s Midnight Garden and Minnow On The Say (both also reissued this year) were well known to me but they had been published in the 1950s and, much as I hesitate to admit it, I would probably have been surprised to learn that Philippa Pearce was still writing. I certainly did not think of her at that time as a contemporary children’s author. Even the fact that this book was runner-up for the Carnegie Medal did not register with me.
The fact that it very nearly won the Carnegie shows that it did have an impact at the time of its publication. This is confirmed by several reviews on Goodreads.
“This was such a favourite of mine when I was a child.”
“One of my childhood favourites.”
“This was one of my favourite books to read as a child… I felt I could literally see the characters, I could see life through Katy’s eyes as if it were my own, feel her struggles, and even see Sat[t]in Shore.”
I think it would be fair to say that the regard in which the book is held by those early readers has not resulted in its being accorded anything like equivalence with Pearce’s better known books.
This reissue is an opportunity for that to change.
I had already listed the hardback 65th anniversay reissue of Tom’s Midnight Garden (with a Foreword by Frank Cottrell Boyce) as an ACHUKA Book of the Day (6 October) and had not intended mentioning the other two paperback reissues that Oxford had sent me. But last Tuesday morning I was sitting waiting for the chimney sweep to complete his work and casually reached over for the book that happened to be on top of the nearest pile.
I read Chapter 1, ‘The Beam of Darkness’, entranced. And when the sweep had packed up his things and left, I went straight on to Chapter 2, ‘Saturday Morning’.
Those two chapters comprise such an excellent start to the novel it is worth discovering how they achieve their effect — the effect being to make the reader want to carry on reading.
Chapter 1 is particularly brilliant. It has surely been used in creative writing seminars as an example of how a great writer introduces character and place — if it hasn’t, it should be.
“Here is Kate Tranter coming home from school in the January dusk — the first to come, because she is the youngest of her family.”
We watch her pass the churchyard, pass the shops, and stop at an unlit terraced house. She unlocks the door and goes in.
Is the whole book going to be told in the present tense? Indeed, not. We turn the page…
“Kate Tranter took a slow breath.”
She has to make ready to pass her Granny’s room on the left of the hall. The door to that room is always open a crack and Granny watches whoever comes in, whoever goes out.
We know immediately that Kate’s relationship with her Granny is not a warm one. Kate passes the “beam of darkness” (a delightful oxymoron) and goes up the stairs to the first floor “past her mother’s room and Randall’s room, that used to be hers; and then up again to her own attic bedroom, opposite Lenny’s.”
A cat called Syrup is waiting for her in her bedroom. We are only two pages in and we know the layout of the house, and who lives in it — our main character, Kate, her Granny, her mother, and two brothers, as well as Syrup the cat. And all this has been conveyed by Kate’s actions — her coming home from school and her going up to her room. There has been no isolated descriptive writing, wordy mood setting, or explanation. The reader is being trusted to follow the clues, much as if they were a viewer of a drama on stage or screen.
Downstairs the front doorbell rings.
“One of the boys could have forgotten his key; not Mum, though.”
But it’s a girl’s voice that calls through the letterbox. A new character is introduced — Anna “from two streets away”.
Kate is too fearful to go down two flights of stairs and have to cross the beam of darkness to let Anna in.
The friend gives up and
“The room darkened; the whole house darkened. It was very still and quiet, too, with only Mrs Randall on the ground floor and Kate Tranter in her attic bedroom. And Syrup.”
This is the first time that the Granny has been named. The reader notes that her surname is the same as the first name of one of Kate’s brothers.
Next to arrive are Lenny and a friend. Kate hears them come in and go up to Lenny’s room. Mrs Tranter next, bustling through to the kitchen.
Syrup, smelling fish, abandons Kate who is left feeling cold and lonely in her unheated room. She ventures out, goes down to the middle floor and slips into Ran’s room.
The room used to be hers, until the brothers began to quarrel on the top floor and her mother had rearranged the bedrooms.
“What had been her bedroom was now Ran’s; what had been his, in the attic, was now hers: she liked that. But she had liked Ran’s bedroom most when it had been in the attic. She had often gone there, in those days, and he had never minded. He had let his little sister play with his things and scatter them about.”
But Ran has changed. His record player and records are gone. His posters too. He is taking evening classes and is hardly at home.
So we know he is quite a bit older and we know that Lenny her other brother has a friend called Brian who often calls round and stays for tea.
You might think there is not much happening in this opening chapter — I would disagree. Anyway, it isn’t finished yet. There is an event. A decisive one — full of meanings and implications that will not be fully explained until nearer the book’s conclusion.
Kate is taking a cup of tea and some bread and butter on a tray to her grandmother. A letter comes through the letterbox. “She could read the name, in brightest violet ink: MRS RANDALL.” It has been delivered by hand.
Kate puts the letter on the tray and delivers it to her grandmother. The chapter ends in commotion as the grandmother shouts out “Catherine! Catherine!” and the mother runs to respond. Kate, Lenny, and Brian hear Mrs. Randall say, “Look at this! Look — look!”
“Then the door was shut, and the voices behind it sank and were muffled.”
Later, while Mrs. Randall is in the bathroom, Kate tiptoes into the bedroom. There is no sign of the letter and no empty envelope in the waste-paper basket.
In the next chapter Kate leaves the house after having struggled to separate her bicycle from Ran’s. He has annoyed her by showing no interest in the arrival of the purple-inked letter. Kate rides off to visit Anna, who lives in a block of flats. But Anna isn’t there. And Anna’s dad does not seem particularly friendly or easy to talk to. From there Kate goes to the graveyard and visits the tombstone of her grandfather and his son, her father who, she has been told, had died by drowning on the day she was born.
As the novel progresses, Kate learns that much of what she has understood about her family and its past is wide of the truth. If this were ever turned into a screenplay (it would make excellent TV mystery viewing) it would require several flashback scenes, the most dramatic of which would be played out on the sandbanks of Sattin Shore.
I finished the book amazed that it is not more talked about and wishing that I had known about it sooner. The structure and the narrative tension cannot be faulted. The chapter lengths are such that if reading in bed at night you would be tempted to indulge in one more before turning out the light. It is, in that sense, a real page turner.
Towards the end of the book Kate is on the receiving end of a shattering confession by someone closely involved in the drowning. How she deals with this is both perfectly believable and morally ambivalent.
It is in that sense an assuredly young adult children’s novel. But like all best YA books, in the original meaning of that term, its audience is 10+. What good discussions could be had if using it as a group reader with Y6.
A few typographical errors have escaped the notice of editors at Oxford University Press. Whilst such are excusable in first editions, they are less so in a reissue. For example, Brian is printed as ‘Brain’ on p.41 and there are numerous instances of mid-line hyphenations such as ‘rou-tine’ on p.89. The jacket illustration by Jenny Bloomfield is pleasing on the eye but the doll-like figure behind the reeds suggests, misleadingly, the book concerns a young child or is for younger readers. The earlier cover, prominently featuring Kate and her bicycle, which plays such an important part in the story, was a better reflection of the mood of the story inside.
Philippa Pearce was an exceptionally gifted writer. The Way To Sattin Shore deserves to be enjoyed by a new generation of readers and to be repositioned in the canon as one of her very best books.