This week I’d like to focus on a series of YA books by Welsh author Myrddin ap Dafydd, translated by Susan Walton and published by Carreg Gwalch. These historical novels focus on different periods of Welsh history and are all standalone works.
The Iron Dam
As with all of these books, The Iron Dam is based around real-life events. In this book, we are transported to 1963 when the village of Llangyndeyrn in the Gwendraeth Fach valley was threatened with being flooded to create a new reservoir to provide water for the big cities. The villagers have already seen the Tryweryn valley in North Wales suffer that same fate and refuse to allow the same thing to happen to their valley. They stand firm together and form a plan to see off the threat.
Living next close to the Peak District, I have grown up hearing about the village of Derwent which was flooded to create the Ladybower Reservoir. When the water levels are low, the top of the church spire can be seen sticking out of the water. The Iron Dam really made me reflect on that story and think about the people that lost their homes and livelihoods to create the reservoir. The historical notes at the back show photographs and images from the time and help to expand the context around the narrative story of Gareth and his family.
Under the Welsh Not looks at a different aspect of Welsh history and one that is really crucial to highlight. This book takes us to the times where the English have imposed that all education should be carried out through the medium of English. Those children caught speaking Welsh in school have a wooden sign hung around their necks: The Welsh Not. This is a symbol of shame and if you are the child wearing the Welsh Not at the end of the day, you suffer the cane. If, however, you can catch one of your classmates speaking Welsh and inform the teacher, you can exchange your fate with theirs.
As an English person, I found this quite an uncomfortable read at times, but so often the uncomfortable truths need to be confronted. The suppression of the Welsh language and culture by shaming and punishing young children really upset me. One of the little girls speaks Welsh at Sunday School (where Welsh is allowed) and yet when we meet her again later in the book, she has learnt to reject her heritage and will now only speak English. Only when the country’s leadership system is changed to include Welsh-speakers do the children see any formal recognition of the value of their native tongue.
When we think of our colonial past, we often think of far-flung countries abroad, perhaps forgetting the proximity of some of the atrocities carried out. This is a great depiction of that domination and suppression taking place so much closer to home and one I think young people should be aware of.
I particularly enjoyed one dialogue where one of the young boys asks what language Noah and his sons would speak at school, given that in the story they had just been told at Sunday School, they had just been speaking Welsh. I can imagine that conversation as a young child tries to get his head around two languages and understand why one is not allowed. As with the previous novel, some of the characters are taken from reality and the historical notes at the back are fascinating.
I also really enjoyed The Moon is Red, set between Wales and the Basque Country around the time of the Spanish Civil War. Part one tells of Megan, whose family has been forced to leave their farm in Porth Neigwl, North Wales, to make way for a bombing school. Her older brother Humphrey is a sailor on a ship that usually transports Welsh coal to the Basque Country and returns with Basque iron for Wales. These ships become the evacuation transport for thousands of Basque children.
In 1937, Pablo Picasso created Guernica, one of his most famous paintings, depicting the destruction of the city of Gernika in the Basque Country at the behest of Franco. In part two of this YA novel, we’re thrust into Gernika just as the bombs are about to fall. We witness the destruction of the city and the impact on the fleeing families. Merin and her little brother Anton are caught up in the bombing and it takes several days until the family reunite, only to be torn apart again. A ship, the Habana is evacuating children the to UK, where they will be relocated across the country, some 4000 in total. The historical notes at the back tell us that approximately 400 children were sent to Wales. And this is where, in part three, our Welsh protagonists meet the Basque ones.
Based on factual events and taking real-life people as the inspiration for some of the characters, what I find particularly interesting in this book is the combination of two languages and cultures which have both been persecuted by the dominant power in their respective countries. The sailors on board the ships speak a mixture of Welsh and Basque, as do the children towards the end of the story. In the English translation, flavours of both Welsh and Basque are kept, particularly in the terms of affection, and it seems particular care has been taken to maintain the Basque spellings for Bilbo and Gernika. Having lived for several years in North Wales, I also really enjoyed Susan Walton’s portrayal of the dialogue, really bringing the North Walian accent alive.
Many thanks to Myrddin ap Dafydd and Carreg Gwalch for the review copies.