By Frances Stebbins, Correspondent
[This is a memory from the many decades the author has been privileged to write for daily and weekly newspapers circulating in Western Virginia.]
From time to time, this column will consider books I’ve read, for until relatively recent years, reading, first novels, and now almost always non-fiction, was one of my major pleasures.
I was read to, nightly, by my single-parent mother who herself loved books. The regular practice lasted until I moved into grownups’ fiction starting with “Gone With the Wind” at 11.
I’ve always thought a good book is worth several readings and so with “How Green Was My Valley,” a powerfully beautiful novel of coal miners in Wales around the turn of the 20th Century.
My copy on its title page carries the information, in an unformed hand, that I received on my 13th birthday. As often happened in those World War II days, it was quickly made into a movie which stayed close to the book by the Welshman Richard Llewellyn.
Perhaps a neighbor who values her Welsh heritage brought the book to mind. With more than 500 pages, it took me several weeks in my 15 minutes of post-midnight bedtime, but I found it even more sadly moving than when first encountered. There’s no other tale quite like it.
Shifting gears and time, I followed the Welsh novel of nearly 80 years ago with a shorter book of non-fiction self-published by a Roanoke friend of the past year, the late Gail Tansill Lambert.
It’s called “The Life and Times of Virginian Robert Tansill,” the great-grandfather of my late friend. Gail Tansill Lambert lived in the Raleigh Court area of Roanoke for more than 50 years. I came to know of Lambert through her writing a Travel column for the free monthly publication, “Senior News.” In time also, I discovered that her Confederate heritage was important to her as mine is to me.
Robert Tansill, the Roanoke author’s ancestor, was born in 1812 and grew up in the Northern Virginia town of Dumfries. As its name suggests, the town was named for one in the Scottish Lowlands from which many Scots emigrated to America in Colonial days. His descendant describes the rural area in the early 19th Century, a place vastly different from the sprawling Washington suburbs that dominate much life today in Eastern Virginia.
In what turned out to be the waning months of her life, Gail Tansill Lambert carefully researched the background of this man who joined the United States Marine Corps in 1840. In the next 20 years, he traveled on land and sea. She discovered that he fought in the Seminole Indian Wars – the Native Americans of today were hardly benevolent citizens of Florida in the 1840s – and that he was with Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 on an expedition to Japan.
That resulted in the history-making event of bringing the United States into commercial contact with the ancient island nation. A century later, the two nations would be in a long and bloody war which some of us can well remember.
When the American Civil War broke out, the United States Marine Corps Captain, Robert Tansill, followed his conscience and, after the unwelcome delay in which he spent time in a New York prison because he could not get home to Virginia, joined the Confederate Army where he was soon elevated to Colonel.
An interesting aside, Tansill had married Frances Ann (Fanny) Weems. She was a granddaughter of the Rev. Mason Locke Weems, a clergyman who wrote the first biography of George Washington and is credited with the famous story of how the future president “could not tell a lie” when he cut down his father’s cherry tree.
Gail Tansill Lambert carries the story of her maternal ancestors through four generations. Fanny Weems Tansill died at 21 of typhoid fever leaving a young son who was reared by his grandmother who had moved to New York. Lambert’s grandfather, like so many in the post-Civil War period, moved to Texas and amassed a fortune in cigar manufacture and land development.
As in an earlier story she published, “Orie,” Lambert explored ancestry leading to one of the founders of the “new” city of Roanoke of 140 years ago.
Returning now to “How Green Was My Valley,” a fictitious story of the large Morgan family deeply involved in a mountainous coal mining village at a time when the town’s famous choir performed for Queen Victoria. Told in first-person by Huw, ( Hugh) the youngest son, it replicates the style of Welsh speech then a mark of pride of the devout Protestant folk who had been absorbed by the English government 400 years before.
The creeping pile of slag, byproduct of the conflicted unionized mine, symbolizes the loss of “greenness” of the valley as Huw grows from childhood to maturity and reflects in his middle age on the loving strength of his family and the minister who was forced out by his principles.
The reader is left with the hope that Huw in his leaving the slag heap is moving on to greater things.