Caught by the River

From the Bookshelf

23rd September 2009

Jon Berry on ‘Minnow on the Say’ by Philippa Pearce:

Minnow on the Say was published in 1955 and has been a favourite of subsequent generations ever since. I read it as a young boy in the ‘seventies, and though I recall enjoying it immensely, the details of its narrative were digested and soon forgotten. Like BB’s ‘Pool of the Black Witch’ and Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazon’s, it joined the list of great adventures that were consumed and assimilated but never revisited. There was little need – they left their watery mark first time around.

Jeff then sent me a copy of a recent re-issue, suggesting I read it again and write a few words for this site. In thirty-something years I had long forgotten the simple beauty of the tale and the subtlety of Pearce’s writing, and it was a pleasure to retread the banks of the mythical Say.

The story is a simple one; Davis Moss befriends Adam Codling, youngest member of a fallen family of aristocrats, and they spend their summer on the River Say, seeking the lost Codling treasure so that Adam’s fortunes might be restored and a disastrous move to Birmingham averted. They have only a four-line poem written in the days of the Armada and Adam’s canoe, the eponymous Minnow, to help them. The quest must take place in secret, too, not only because old family feuds threaten to surface but because there are others who seek the same prize as they.

This was Pearce’s first book for children, though she had written for radio and for schools previously, and the quality of the prose is assured. She draws upon her own childhood on the banks of Cambridgeshire’s River Cam as well as the horror of the Blitz to produce a work that balances pastoral sentiment with stark twentieth-century reality, and never avoids weightier subjects – Minnow on the Say addresses poverty, class distinction, greed, the idiosyncrasies of village life and the trials of friendship with an openness that few writers for children could match. The dementia suffered by Adam’s grieving Grand-father is as sensitive a portrayal of the cost of war as any front-line trench verse. And yet, the story’s abiding sense is one of optimism and innocence.

Adam and David’s world is no Blyton-esque ginger beer idyll, but is one in which class divides make little sense, men go to war and don’t return, and children grapple with the failings of the adults around them. Adam and David inhabit a troubled England where truth and joy can be had only by taking to the river and seeking adventure.

We live in such times now, and the resonance of Minnow on the Say is as strong as it ever was. Thanks Jeff.