Two Weeks with the Queen by Morris Gleitzman. A review by John Cook

Novel 1990
Play adaptation 1993

I am afraid that my copy of this book has gone walkabout and so I looked at my copy of the play adaptation by Mary Morris. The original has been a very successful text read throughout the world to general applause and acceptance. It is a most unpromising topic based on a terminal case of child cancer balanced against an AIDS death. The central character Colin is in for a major event as he comes to accept that the adult world however flawed (and it sure is as represented by his English aunt and uncle and a standard unfeeling response by HM the Queen) does not always have all the answers and that there are some things that have to be accepted but on terms of one’s own making and understanding. If those terms involve loving, caring and support, so be it.

Colin is sent to the UK to be away from his brother who is dying from cancer (the typical ‘we know better, trust us’ response). Colin looks for his own solutions against the background of highly conventional, caring, yet fearful adults. His responses can appears childish, unrealistic yet always desperately hopeful. His encounter with Ted and Griff proves a turning point as he experiences loving care, understanding and acceptance of death and determines to return to his brother in order to extend this to his own situation.

This is a remarkable text for dealing with these difficult issues with a neatly balanced mixture of humour and genuine feelings of sadness. It was/is remarkable as it does lead juvenile (and adult) readers through dealing with these issues as succinctly and effectively as it does. It might have been seen as a product of the plague years but its central issues remain timeless as does its popularity.

The play adaptation is highly effective (I have seen it on stage) with the large number of rapid scene changes required its principal problem. I have not seen it played with children of the portrayed age but with young adult characters and it loses none of its effectiveness. I have heard some express disgruntlement at what some interpret as a republican or anti-monarchist sentiment but I accept this aspect as an inherent part of the process of boundary testing that the book/play represents.

A Place Called Winter
By Patrick Gale
2015

BCC has 14 copies.

This is a very good epic novel, as well-written as one might expect from Gale with beautiful language choice and use. Structurally, it has its complications with an initial story set in Comfortable Edwardian England with all the expectations that encourages. There is a long component that focuses on the reasons for Harry’s emigration (great detail here) and subsequent life on the Canadian prairies. There is a component that focuses on the treatment of mental disorders (not all are) in a Canadian early 20thC mental institution and a somewhat more enlightened communal therapy setting. Flashbacks are used and the range of characters are easily discriminated and remain focussed even when lost in the twists of the plot. This, for me, points to the only weakness I found in that some of the sudden twists in the plot come close to incredulity saved only by the apparent passivity of the central character for much of the action.

This leads me to characterise this novel as one of overcoming barriers or impediments (some external, some internal) for a man who has to work through issues, problems, people and places in order to find himself and self-expression. This makes Harry not always a character that one can easily identify with and with those plot developments that are sometimes a little incredible. The final outcome, however, seems very much in line with Walt Whitman’s vision in “Leaves of Grass”.

“Whitman’s dream of democratic comradeship was, perforce, as much influenced by his actual experience of the city of New York as by his fantasies about the open prairie, or the Rocky Mountains, or the Great Lakes… (quoting from ‘Song of Myself’)

You sweaty brooks and dews it shall be you!
Winds whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me it shall be you!
Broad muscular fields, branches of live oak, loving lounger in my winding paths,
It shall be you.”
A History of Gay Literature:The Male Tradition, Gregory Woods (1998)

This book traverses from Oscar Wilde and Jermyn Street through Edward Carpenter and Walt Whitman through hard-earned good fortune and matching travails to a serene if wounded conclusion. To the contemporary reader, it is still not ‘Whitmanesque’ idyllic as there remains the possibility of the kind of deaths seen with the old gay rancher and Jack in ‘Brokeback Mountain’.

Of the intersecting material some is useful as colour (details of emigrating and prairie farming) while some explores and extends the theme – i.e his stammer which summates much of the difficulties that confront him and how he deals with them – the Cree Indian people and the transsexual young person he encounters in his cave of darkness where turn of the century psychiatry is being practised along with the remnants of mediaeval methods.

Why ‘A Place Called Winter’? Certainly there is a growing town called Winter that features in a lot of the Canadian action and while Winter weather certainly features, as it must, it seems as though Harry is testing himself against the Canadian Winters and gradually masters them and himself. I therefore tend to see Winter more as internalised place within him which he comes to master just as the weather.

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