Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Tale of Applebeck Orchard by Susan Wittig Albert

Beatrice Potter, beloved Children's Author, returns to Lake Country to find the villagers up in arms over the closing of what everyone considers a public path through Applebeck Orchard. And not just closing, but enclosing, with wire and wood and tar.

The Owner of the Orchard, Adam Harmsworth, is angry over someone having torched one of his haystacks in the night, and believes it is the fault of the Claife Heights Ramblers, a group of walkers based in the Sawrey Villages. He thinks that one of them set the fire for fun, and has decided to close the path running through the orchard to prevent anything like it from happening again. And if they aren't responsible, perhaps it's Auld Beechie, who used to work for Adam Harmsworth, but was turned off, like that, and now must subsist on a rather dodgy way of making a living.

But the Animals of the Land between the lakes know the truth- the fire was started by a woman, and maybe a Ghost, a woman who haunts Applebeck Orchard looking for her daughter who drowned in the small pond there. Bosworth Badger, the Badger who runs the animal hostel known as the Brockery, knows the tale- though he's beset with a problem of his own. He's getting on in years, and is looking for someone to pass on the Badge of the Brockery to. At first he was considering passing it onto Thorn, the son of his Badger Housekeeper and Cook, Primrose, but he's been missing since he left on a trip in January.

The only remaining candidate for the job is Primrose's daughter, Hyacinth, and while she's smart, intelligent and courageois, she'd also be the first female to ever hold the job. Can Bosworth trust her enough to give her the job, and does she have the intelligence to keep up the standards of Bosworth's family?

Another unusual career is in the offing in the village, with Caroline Longford wanting to attend the Royal Academy as a student composer. She has the talent, the drive, and the ambition, but can Beatrice and her music teacher persuade her tight-fisted grandmother to support her in her schooling instead of saving Caroline's inheritance as a dowry to be used when she marries?

Beatrice is also a bit upset. After having been in mourning for her fiancé of one month for five long years, she has fallen in love with Will Heelis, a local solicitor. But she cannot marry him for the same reason that she could not marry her former suitor. He is in trade- he is beneath her- and more to the point, her parents view her as attempting to be anything other than a put-upon nursemaid for them to be sheer folly. And Beatrice knows she doesn't have the will to gainsay them or put up with their unpleasantness on the subject of her marrying.

Meanwhile, Miles Woodcock is also turning his attention to marriage, and when he unexpectedly finds himself falling for Margaret Nash, the village Schoolteacher, she unexpectedly finds herself agreeing to marry him, for she has loved him ever since he spoke up on her behalf and got her the job with the school.

But as the problem of the closing of the Applebeck Orchard footpath consumes the village, shots are fired, and another building goes up in flames. Tempers on both sides run high. But can Beatrice discover the true culprit and set matters to rights in the short time she will be staying on her farms?

I like this book, but this mystery really wasn't much of one. Much of the story seemed to be pairing characters off or setting up small bits of business to distract from how small this mystery was. I figured out who had done it fairly early in, so it all becomes wondering when the other characters were going to catch on and how the culprit would be caught. Essentially, it doesn't have the dripping pull of someone being killed or otherwise menaced. It seemed that more time was spent on other storylines than the mystery itself.

But mainly, its the characters here who attract, and this book has them aplenty. Following the lives of the villagers of both near and Far Sawrey (named for their distance to a market town) allows you to see how their attitudes towards Beatrice, and each other, change over time. And it's not just the humans who are characters, but the animals of the region as well, from the local cats and dogs to the Badgers, ferrets and other animals who call the village home- and Beatrice seems to be the only one who understands them.

It's a cute series, but the series itself is changing, becoming slightly different. Beatrice Potter is entering a less creative period in her life. From now on, she will only make books to support her farms. And the stories are less about her own animals, and more the wild animals of the village and surrounding farms. It will be interesting to see where the series heads from here, and yeah, I'll be there to read it. Recommended.

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