The Herb of Grace, by Elizabeth Goudge (1948). Book Two of the "Eliots of Damerosehay" trilogy. Alternate title: Pilgrim's Inn.
This is a story about a place. Kind of a grownup version of Goudge's Moonacre Manor (she published The Little White Horse only two years before this book). It's about desires, letting go of the bad ones, acknowledging the true ones, and getting to the heart of things, and the hearts of people.
One of the recurring desires is for something decent to eat. World War II has just ended, there's still a lot of rationing in Britain, and everybody is exhausted and out of sorts. You get that same mild obsession with food in the Narnia books--the same wishful descriptions of sausages and cakes. In The Little White Horse, there's a marvellous, mysterious chef, and food all over the place. In The Herb of Grace, there are ration books and powdered eggs...and a not-quite-as-magical cook who gets her extra treats from a nephew in the grocery business.
But that's not what the book's about...or maybe it is, because you do have to start with the small desires before you can understand the big ones.
I started out not liking this book very much. I almost quit after the first couple of chapters, because all the characters seemed so angsty, self-centered, and cold. I don't mind bad characters, but I don't like cold ones. It's hard to write about cold characters and not make them awfully dull, and it's worse to read about them.
But happily for the story, Elizabeth Goudge quickly moves the whole disconnected family into a just-needs-TLC inn called The Herb of Grace, and the pieces start falling into place. Like the mother of the Eliots, the reader may not realize just how much she's getting into with this move, or what's going to be uncovered (sometimes literally). Everything changes. Almost everybody changes. Except maybe for the grandmother, whose interfering but somehow inspired ideas get these Stuck-in-Park lives moving again. And Uncle Hilary, who is somewhat like Old Parson in The Little White Horse, and somewhat like Jan Karon's Father Tim. He is just himself all the way through, but he's one of the best characters in the book.
If you like The Wind in the Willows and don't mind the mystical parts, you'll like this book. (The two youngest children, who need inner healing as much as the rest, like to play that they are Rat and Mole.) If you enjoy books about amazing houses and walks through the woods, you'll like it. If you like books about being a little lost but coming back to what's important, you'll like it. If you like good Christmas scenes, you'll like it.
Highly recommended. (I think it can stand alone without reading the first book.)
P.S. This is not necessarily a book you want to hand to people below their teens. Nothing nasty happens, but there are subplots involving very adult feelings and some messy events of the past. And I do need to mention again that if you don't care for the slightly pantheistic/magicky parts of The Wind in the Willows, or similar elements in Elizabeth Goudge's children's books, you will not like this one.
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