“Sissinghurst: A Castle’s Unfinished History” by Adam Nicholson

sissinghurst.jpeg This is a romantic story of a famous castle in England. It is also a thoughtful assessment of how Sissinghurst Castle could be brought back to the life it once enjoyed as a big farm with cattle and sheep, orchards and crops, as well as the legendary White Garden planted by the author’s notable grandmother, Vita Sackville-West.

Unlike beloved cottages in Canada which may go back a few generations in places like the Laurentians or Muskoka (or farther in Quebec) a British property like Sissinghurst can be traced back hundreds of years. Adam Nicolson and his family have recently moved into this estate. He has written a number of books on history, travel and the environment already but this particular spot has stolen his heart because both his father and grandfather had lived here. As a boy growing up, he met and was aware of many of the Bloomsbury artists who were close friends of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, and the book is full of tantalizing glimpses of their exotic adventures.

But it is the actual land itself that captivates this writer and he has gone to considerable length to fill this account with maps and photos of the beauty in the Weald of Kent that makes Sissinghurst so special. It was once a medieval manor and a great sixteenth-century house complete with towers and moats which fell into disrepair when it became an eighteenth-century prison during the Seven Years War. Adam Nicolson is passionate about reconnecting the garden, farm and land. Reading this book you can only wish him good luck and feel sympathy for his quite inspiring mission.

Review by Anne McDougall

“William C. Van Horne – Railway Titan” by Valerie Knowles

williamvanhorne.jpeg This is a well-written, exciting account of a true “titan”. We don’t produce many – and although William C.Van Horne was born in Illinois, it was when he came to Canada to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway that he became an international force in railways and beyond.

Born in l843, Van Horne had already made his mark as first telegrapher and eventually superintendent of a number of American railways. In l88l he was offered the CPR job and became vice-president of the faltering railroad. Canadian officials gave the train ten years to make it to the coast. With incredible drive, and the descriptions of the dangerous sections along Lake Superior are quite harrowing, Van Horne completed the job in five years and we all know the famous photo of the last spike being driven home, at Craigellachie.

Knowles does a good job sketching in Van Horne’s background. Left fatherless at age ll, he had to help his mother with the other four children. Dutch, and stubborn, he left school at l4 and got a job in the telegraph office. From the beginning he worked long hours, but also had true gifts of vision, as well as an ability to work with others and invent betters ways of doing things.

Knowles describes his life in Montreal where he bought a big house in the city’s Square Mile, on Sherbrooke Street, which has regrettably been torn down. He had a real taste for art, drawing himself, as well as building up a fine collection of European paintings. By this time he had been knighted in recognition of his far-flung financial enterprises all over the world.

Valerie Knowles was born in Montreal but has lived for some time in Ottawa, writing for government departments, magazines, as well as several non-fiction works. This book is part of the Quest Biography and includes a very useful Chronology of William C. Van Horne at the end of the book.

Review by Anne McDougall

“Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” by Helen Simonson

majorpettigrew.jpeg This is a gently romantic novel set in a small English village. It introduces Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired) and Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper. Both have lost their spouses; both have awkward family relationships; both love Kipling and a strong cup of tea after a walk by the sea. But their friendship stirs up a tempest in the teapot of village life and it makes for a rivetting story.

Helen Simonson was born in England but, after graduating from the London School of Economics and working as a travel advertising executive, has spent the last twenty years in Brooklyn, and now Washington where she lives with her husband and two sons. She writes with charming detachment about the gossipy wiles of English village life. But she also remembers with affection the beauty of the flowers and countryside, the appeal of the thatched cottages and the deep loyalty in the hearts of the villagers.

This loyalty undergoes certain stresses and strains when the Major and Mrs. Ali carry their friendship to a date at the big club dance. She is Pakistani after all and belongs to a different race and culture. The Major comes through trumps – as he always has – and the story remains unsentimental, intelligent and warm – what one critic calls “the best first novel I’ve read in a long time” And so it is. Read it.

Review by Anne McDougall