Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough. Candlewick Press. 2012. Reviewed from eArc from NetGalley.
The Plot: August, 1958. England. Sisters Cora and Mimi are sent to live with a relative they have never met. To make matters worse, their great aunt, Ida Eastfield, wasn’t expecting them and doesn’t want them. She’s rude and unwelcoming, full of odd rules and warnings about what the girls can and can’t do. Don’t open doors, don’t open windows, don’t go into locked rooms, don’t go to the church.
Meeting Roger and Pete, two boys from the neighborhood, makes things better. And worse. It’s Roger who suggest they go to the old church, forbidden by Auntie Ida. It’s there that Mimi sees something, something that scares her.
It also scares Auntie Ida.
Cora is determined to find the truth behind Ida’s warnings, her anger and fear, the whispers in the town about her family. She discovers a family curse going back hundreds of years, a history of lost children — and that Mimi may be the next victim, unless Cora can figure out a way to save her little sister from the mysterious “Long Lankin.”
The Good: Said my lord to my lady, as he mounted his horse: Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss. “Long Lankin” is an old English ballad. I adore books based on and inspired by ballads and love what Barraclough does here with Long Lankin. I don’t want to give too much away, about what is real or what is myth from the original ballad, but I simply loved it. The tension, the suspense, the horror that all come from discovering the truth behind Long Lankin kept me up all night, as did Cora’s desperate struggle to save her younger sister.
Long Lankin is set in the village of Byers Guerdon, England in August of 1958. Cora and Mimi are from the East End of London, complete with accents and hand me downs of hand me downs. Mum is missing; Dad isn’t able to take care of his girls; so off they go to their grandmother’s sister. Long Lankin wonderfully creates the world of mid-twentieth century England, and it’s a time period that adds the the atmosphere that veers from suspenseful to warm. The girls are coming from a London with homes that don’t yet have indoor plumbing. Cora regards her aunt’s inside bathroom with a bit of disdain: “At home the privy is outside in the yard. I think it’s cleaner than having one in the house like this.” Ida Eastfield was born a Guerdon, the last of the Guerdons of Guerdon Hall and the village of Byers Guerdon. It’s a large house, but full of dust and decay, a place that has been neglected.
The girls are outsiders, but also insiders. Their grandmother Agnes, who died during the war, was Ida’s sister. It turns out their mother, Susan, who is “away” also has a tie to Guerdon Hall. Ida tells them nothing, preferring blunt words and smacks to explanations.
Long Lankin is told from the points of view of Cora and Roger — and Ida. Ida’s view of events shows the reader that Ida is more than what she appears to be now. “My worn-out tweed skirt lies over the back of the chair. The hem’s been hanging down for weeks. Will’s old shirt is in a heap on the floor and I’ll just pick it up and put it on again tomorrow, along with the brown cardigan I knitted before the war, the one I wore today, and yesterday, and the day before that. I know what I have become. I find in some small hidden room of myself a little corner of shame, but I quickly shut the door on it.” Ida is slow to reveal to the reader her secrets and the secrets of Guerdon Hall, but “the war” is her war, the Great War, and “the war” is also the losses she has suffered because of Long Lankin. It is a wonder of Long Lankin that Ida is not just as important a character as Cora or Roger, but also as sympathetic a character despite of how she treats Cora and Mimi.
Roger is a local boy, and, like Cora is about twelve. Unlike Cora, his childhood is almost ideal and worry free. Yes, his mother has her hands full with a houseful of children (Roger, Pete, Terry, Dennis, and the longed for girl, Baby Pamela), so Roger is asked to do errands and watch a younger sibling or make the tea, but his worries and fears are nothing compared to Cora’s, even before she realizes the threat to Mimi. His is a household with parents who love their children; his is a household with enough money. Roger doesn’t realize how lucky he has it.
1958 allows for both children to be independent: they can explore the countryside and village alone, visit people alone, with no adult tagging along or checking in nonstop via text or telephone. Neither Cora nor Roger realize it, but their childhood is touched by the two wars that took place before their births. It’s a time where certain things haven’t yet changed or been modernized, such as what a person can make of their lives. As Roger says of his father, “he read a lot of books, and if he’d been born into a richer family, he’d probably have gone to university.”
Into this child’s paradise of camps and swings and hikes comes the whispers and dangers of Long Lankin. What should have been a refuge for Cora and Mimi is actually the start of nightmares. Long Lankin, as Cora and Mimi discover, has a taste for children, has had for years and years and years, and once he’s noticed a child he is relentless. He has noticed Mimi. This is the second genius of Long Lankin: how Cora tries to get to the bottom of the mystery. It’s an age without Internet; Auntie Ida doesn’t even have a telephone. It’s a mystery that goes back hundreds of years.
When reading this, I was reminded of three authors: Diana Wynne Jones, because Barraclough’s capturing of childhood reminded me of Jones. When Cora discovers a piano in her aunt’s house and wants to play, she sits down. But what child just sits down on a piano stool? “I sat down on the stool, one of those that whirled around and went up and down, and I must have whizzed round on it for five minutes at least before I cam to a stop, all giddy.” Stephen King and Peter Straub, because Long Lankin is a horror story about cursed generations, missing children, murders, witchcraft, and the supernatural.
Cora and Roger are about twelve, no older than thirteen; Mimi is four. Long Lankin only likes taking younger children. Cora and Roger are just old enough to be able to think they can do something, figure something out, but also young enough to not deny the ghosts or specters they see. Both are young enough to have freedom during summer holidays and not have to think about jobs or school or their own futures.
Ida’s story offers balance and deeper knowledg of what is happening. She also shows what happens when fear and heartbreak are too much for one person. One thing I really appreciated: despite the three voices, or maybe because of it, there were many loose ends to this story. Oh, the main story is told and resolved; but these are three real people, with bigger lives, and even Lankin’s life is more than what is in this book. I adored how some things remained fuzzy, to be guessed by the reader.
Because I won’t be able to sleep tonight. Because my heart broke for Ida. Because I cheered for Cora. Because I wondered if Roger realized just how lucky he had it. Because of the scares and the suspense. Because it’s a story well told, but not tidily told. Long Lankin is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2012.