The other day I was having a hard time feeling inspired about anything I was reading or anything on the TBR shelf. Seeking inspiration I went to the public library and then rummaged around in the Friends of the Library Bookstore. I often peruse used bookstores, or discount shelves in chain stores, looking for random books that I might want to read based on nothing more than the cover and book flap description.
It turned out to be a great choice. This first novel by William Newton turned out to be a charming and simple tale of two brother’s adventures in 1930’s England. It has a sense of innocence and whimsy that matches the time and setting so well that you suspect the book is an autobiography rather than fiction. The writing is simple enough for children and yet provides humor and even poignancy for adults.
Here is the book’s description that convinced me to pick it up:
The year was 1937, and Hitler had just walked into Austria. It was also a marvelous year for clouded yellow butterflies.
Wilfred and Duncan live in a big old house in Sussex, England. They spend their days catching butterflies and dreaming of escape, and only ever see their parents on Wednesdays for lunch. When their mother elopes and their already distant father takes up with other ladies, they decide that enough is enough. And they have a plan: they will leave home, go to London, and buy a tram, decommissioned by the bus and tram company, that they have seen advertised in the paper for two pounds sterling. Soon the brothers find that their adventures have begun in earnest-as they become proprietors of an old-fashioned horse-drawn tram service, then local celebrities whose tram advertises for a seaside merchant, and finally such heroes of the war effort that they receive a visit from royalty.
Two things struck me as I was reading. The first, is the innocence and whimsy that infuses the book. The story is simple yet touches on difficult subjects like war, broken families, and childhood illness. It is light hearted, however, and never gets maudlin or “serious” even when at the end the now older narrator returns to scenes of his youth. There is a sense of loss and a touch of nostalgia, but a light one. It is a slice of history from a time that seems quite distant today. The humor comes from the simple interaction of the boys with the people around them. The adventure is never quite knowing what the next day will bring. This reflects that unique feeling that only seems possible when you are young. Some may find the book unsatisfying because of its simplicity but I found it mischievous and mysterious enough to be rewarding.
That mischief and mystery comes from the second aspect that stood out, the ability to tell the story so that it seems true to life. Wilfred narrates the book in a voice that seems real; that somehow captures what one would think a boy in his situation at that time might sound. The book is a wink at the truism that often “truth is stranger than fiction.” Newton so infuses the narrator with the ring of truth and innocence that we begin to wonder if this “story” really happened.
Online reviewer Ann Skea captures my reaction very well:
All of this sounds fantastic, but the charm of this story is that it could all, just possibly, be true. William Newton tells it so simply and so plausibly that you end up wanting to search for corroborative evidence. And if you do so, I’m sure you will find some, although the details may not be sufficient for you to verify Wilfred’s version of events.
Whether the story is truth or fantasy, however, is not important. It is a wonderful story, told by a story-teller who, if nothing else, can embroider facts so imaginatively that you suspend disbelief. It reads like a memoir, and it captures with deceptive simplicity and humor the adventure, optimism, delights and disappointments of the vanished world of youth. It is a pleasure to read.
All in all, I must say that The Two Pound Tram was a pleasant surprise and short but sweet treat. If you come across this little book in a bookstore or remainder bin, I would recommend giving it a read. I agree with Skea, you will be glad you did.