(Maureen) Mollie Hunter (McIlwraith)

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Stanley Cook

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 952

It was providence that the book of Mollie Hunter's I read last was A Sound of Chariots. It is the author's answer to the questions that build up in covering the range of her works. She is a most compelling storyteller, yet sometimes one senses she is having a butterfly's troubles with its chrysalis in her use of the formulas of children's fiction. A Sound of Chariots is an emotional autobiography apparently and an apologia….

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The movement of Mollie Hunter's work is from the historical to the supernatural, to an Old Testament position where natural and supernatural rub shoulders in daily life…. The position is given in terms of the 'old religion' that Christianity superseded, but its exponents have the intensity of John Bunyan; the young men dream dreams and the old men see visions and the latter are in effect the Law and the Prophets. The penetration of ordinary life by the supernatural in earlier days requires; one can argue, this kind of presentation in order to provide an authentic picture. It is necessary even if we do not think it is literally true…. In practice, she writes too well not to achieve 'willing suspension of disbelief'. (p. 108)

Real powers of evil for witches and warlocks can be granted only on Christian terms: therefore with continued tact Mollie Hunter presents witchcraft mainly as fraud and delusion that are only too human. Compare her The Thirteenth Member and Shakespeare's Macbeth, which both use the account of the exposure of witchcraft in the sixteenth-century Newes from Scotland, to see how she explains as politics what Shakespeare suggests is supernatural. To her, witchcraft is to the old religion as pornography is to love stories; and as with pornography people are in it for gain. Thus witchcraft in Mollie Hunter's work is part of her historical fiction: her folk tales deal with the imaginative appeal of the supernatural; her stories of witchcraft with the social significance of a superstition. (pp. 108-09)

It is most obvious in the early Hi Johnny, where the kings of Scotland and the gypsies serve for Richard I home from the Crusades and Robin Hood respectively. It tends to write the story, though an exciting one, in The Lothian Run, for the hero's psychology is neglected so that he slips into becoming something of a secret police cadet who denounces the smuggler who delivers his mother's tea. The Spanish Letters seems to me a much happier version of The Lothian Run….

It is unusual for a children's novel to put superstitions so much in historical perspective as does The Thirteenth Member…. Here and in The Ghosts of Glencoe there is, outside any formula, historical fact which has aroused Mollie Hunter's imagination. The choice of historical fact makes The Ghosts of Glencoe inevitably parallel to [Robert Louis Stevenson's] Kidnapped, a position it can sustain, for it is a moving story, better in my opinion than The Stronghold, which received a Carnegie Medal, and a near-classic. (p. 109)

[The Stronghold] proceeds with the dignity of a medal-winner, i.e. perhaps a shade too educationally…. Perhaps it is contemporary troubles that make me feel friction over nineteenth-century enclosures in A Pistol in Greenyards is rather journalistic. In both these books Mollie Hunter remains the born storyteller and they are successful realisations of interesting periods of history, but I think she does not make quite the clean lift of the story that one comes to expect from her.

Noteworthy achievement though her historical novels are, the form in which Mollie Hunter's Celtic powers move most sweetly and with an inevitability is the folk tale, about the old religion, the little people and, usually, the remoter parts of Scotland. She is the kind of traditional storyteller to whom she herself keeps referring. Above all she sounds like one.

I particularly admire Patrick Kentigern Keenan and The Bodach…. [Her] stories, linked to come to a climax through varied moods, of Patrick Kentigern Keenan, 'the smartest man in all Ireland', seem to me faultless…. In The Kelpie's Pearls the forceful man who tangles with supernature transfers from the role of hero to that of downright villain. The shift is plausible; there is a moving ending; it is another fine story.

The Bodach is a folk tale set against a hydro-electric scheme: a success and therefore something of a tour de force. To combine successfully two such apparently dissimilar elements as modern technology and Highland legend especially requires the charming sound I have referred to…. The Bodach is delivered direct to the reader. (pp. 109-10)

The Wicked One does extend the Mollie Hunter reader's knowledge of the old religion … but I felt that, while the story maintained a grip, it was not with as powerful magic as the folk tales I have criticised in my previous two paragraphs. I felt the same about Thomas and the Warlock. It ends with witchcraft, something I think Mollie Hunter does not believe in, and she does not make me believe in it either. On the other hand, while I was reading A Stranger Came Ashore I felt that its legend was history. This book resembles, but with a different balance, The Stronghold: in the latter the supernatural is part of daily life, but in A Stranger Came Ashore daily life is part of the supernatural. (p. 110)

Altogether I feel that while some of Mollie Hunter's books are especially memorable—Patrick Kentigern Keenan, The Bodach and The Ghosts of Glencoe for me—it is the mind behind them that is most compelling. The idea of her chosen landscape alive with people and itself alive is gospel to her. (p. 111)

Stanley Cook, "Children's Writers, 3: Mollie Hunter," in The School Librarian, Vol. 26, No. 2, June, 1978, pp. 108-11.

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