One of William Mayne’s many qualities as an author for which critics have often commended him is the almost poetic quality of his prose. This is nowhere more clearly seen than in his depictions of the Yorkshire Dales, both in their Brontë-esque remoteness and grandeur and in the details of a working sheep farm. Although farming is a struggle in the stony and barren soil and with the predations of foxes in the henhouse, what comes across in the novel is the settled and contented nature of the inhabitants, their natural intelligence and sympathies, and the depths of their roots. The novel is set in the summer, and Mayne’s description of the sunlight, moonlight, and starlight, the cloud formations and visibility, inform the whole atmosphere. Readers can sense how Mary believes so easily in fairyland; the setting itself, as described by Mayne, is magical.
In addition to geographical remoteness, strangeness is also provided by the use of local dialect, especially by Peter and Charley, the farmhand. Mayne, who is from Yorkshire himself, has an unerring ear for this dialect. His narrative descriptions contrast with the dialogue in their complex and detailed visual imagery, which gives the style its particular poetic quality. The dialogue, of which there is a generous amount, also has a fantastical quality at times, as the motifs from the legend color the subject matter and the thought patterns of the children.
Although the setting is depicted as...
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The publication of A Grass Rope firmly sealed William Mayne’s reputation as a gifted and sensitive children’s writer, especially with the awarding of the Carnegie Medal for the book in 1957. Like many of Mayne’s novels, it derives its strength from a detailed portraiture and the love of a specific Yorkshire locale. Such atmosphere and careful scenic painting are not always seen as virtues in children’s literature; neither is the elliptical, often tangential style or the unspecific sense of audience. His prolific output—forty books in twenty years—and his typically careful and intelligent writing helped raise the status of children’s literature in the 1950’s and 1960’s and established him firmly in the canon of British children’s literature.
A Grass Rope is perhaps, in its near fantasy elements, more akin to Earthfasts (1966) rather than Mayne’s better-known school stories, such as A Swarm in May (1955). Both Earthfasts and A Grass Rope are set in the Yorkshire Dales, show a fascination with a fairy world underground and the characters’ attempts to enter a magic gate to attain it, and share a sense of the solidity of history and the living past. More important, both conduct a debate on the limits of scientific methodology as a way of knowing truth. Mayne handles the personal and family relationships far more successfully here, however, than in the later book.
Among other writers, perhaps the closest to Mayne in style is a Yorkshire compatriot, Jane Gardam. Her book The Hollow Land (1981) has a similar feel to A Grass Rope: The younger children are seen exploring a similar northern landscape full of the living past, dialect language and local customs are used to create a keenly experienced setting, and, out of this setting, plots naturally develop in a relatively leisurely way.