Linda Strachan lives with her husband in a village beside the sea, just 20 miles from the vibrant festival city of Edinburgh. She did a variety of jobs but never expected to become a writer, although now she can't imagine doing anything else. Her first published titles were a series of eight books for children with reading difficulties that were published in 1996. She has written books that are used in schools all over the world and books for reluctant readers. With almost 60 books published, Linda writes for children of all ages, from tots to teens, and she has also written a writing handbook for newly published and aspiring writers about all aspects of Writing for Children. Her bestselling series about the cuddly haggis called Hamish McHaggis delights children and adults all over the world. In 2008 Spider, her first teenage novel, was published. It is a story about teenage car crime and has just been shortlisted for book awards, including the 2010 Catalyst Book Award. Her latest, Dead Boy Talking, is another hard hitting story, this time about teenage knife crime. Here Linda discusses Laurie Lee's The Firstborn.
Linda Strachan on The Firstborn by Laurie Lee
When I was thinking about which book to choose I imagined that it would be one of the long, involved, other-world fantasy novels that I enjoy so much - perhaps George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones or something by Guy Gavriel Kay. But as I was looking for inspiration my eyes fell on this slim volume and I recalled how enchanting and moving it is.
A delight to be savoured, The Firstborn is as much a pleasure to read today as it was when I received it as a gift from my mother on the birth of my firstborn. Laurie Lee's eloquent essay about his newborn daughter mirrors the wonder and delight, the fears and realisations that new parents everywhere will instantly recognize.
... her first living gesture was a thin wringing of the hands accompanied by a Hebridean lament.
She arrives late in his life and it is with a sense of disbelief that he tells us about the experience of meeting her for the first time. He describes that first moment in his daughter's life, and with each word you can sense how captivated he is by this tiny baby.
He muses that life will never be the same again and we follow him as he instinctively searches her face for a sense of the familiar. Trying to find some family resemblance in the newborn features he reminds us of our connection to each other and how important the connection to family is - even if at such an early stage the resemblance is minimal and at times imagined.
So much of what he writes is eternally unchanging. The way her first smile has him 'enslaved by her flattery of my powers'. We are all delighted by our ability to make a baby smile or laugh but perhaps it is merely nature's way of making sure that we protect these tiny exhausting miracles, even when as parents we are at our wits' end.
He comments on how at the beginning and the end of life we look physically almost the same, old and bald. He watches as the days go by and the child moves forward in time, filling out and losing that newborn look that so resembles both birth and death at once.
Interestingly the title, The Firstborn, is not entirely accurate as this was his second daughter, the first being the love-child from a much earlier relationship with a married woman. But reading this book you can sense that, for him, this is perhaps the first time he has engaged with these emotions and it is in essence his first experience of real parenthood, with all its wonder and amazement.
His description of her daily routine, the small noises and movements, are evidence of a keenly observed and delightful obsession with his new baby. Every time I read it I am transported back to those heady emotional days and nights when my children were newborn. The frightening responsibility of making sure they were kept safe that would keep me awake despite being desperate for sleep, and when they finally did fall asleep I would prod them to make sure they were still breathing.
But, as with all parents, his thoughts soon turn to her future and he lies watching her, fearing for her, while she is totally self-absorbed and unaware of his fears. His worries echo those that might flit past the consciousness of any new parent and he does not dwell too long on them, but interestingly they also reflect the era when this was written.
In 1964 were we really so absorbed by the potential of nuclear war? It would seem so. But it is still shocking when he makes an effort not to dwell on the possibility that she might be 'merely a receptacle for Strontium 90'. It was a time when young school children were given lessons on how to find a safe room with no windows, and how to fill it with those necessities that would help them survive in the event of a nuclear strike. The threat was not taken lightly but it is quite amazing how strange and unreal it all sounds now.
With a writer's eye he sees that she is unaware of the emotions her face is practising for use in later life, observing her almost like a character in a novel. He recognizes that she is a separate person and, musing on the cycle of life, that she may at some point become his keeper and she may also alter him as he tries to teach her. He calls her 'my tardy but bright-eyed pathfinder'.
A real gem, short, sharply observed and delicious.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]