Wednesday, March 3, 2010

To Serve Them All My Days

Twenty years ago, Heather, an English teacher in the independent school where I was working told me that one of her favorite books was To Serve Them All My Days by R.F. Delderfield. I added it to my mental list of books I might read and within a few years I had obtained a used hardback copy of the book.  Since then, through a number of moves and changes, it has occupied a place of honor on the front shelf in my home library. Unread.

Why unread? It looked long.  I was working in schools and this novel about the career and life of a teacher/headmaster in a boys "public" (i.e. private) school in England between the two World Wars threatened to bring workaday problems into my private reading. The cover of my
 edition was a little stodgy (men in academic gowns perusing the cricket field in front of a curious red brick building.) Was it dated?

In a recent move to  cull my shelves, I considered removing it from view. Perhaps even discarding it. Permanently.

Then, I saw a reprinted edition of the book in Barnes and Noble. You should know that I am very influenced by marketing messages and tricks. In fact, my children joke that I am a marketers's dream customer as I travel down the shelves of a supermarket and I confess that book marketing may have the same effect on me. I am not proud of this but I am trying to be honest here.  I began to think that this book that I had been living with for twenty years was being reprinted for a reason. Did it speak to a new audience somehow? Had I neglected a gem, a classic?

I took the book from the shelf at home and placed it on my bookwagon. Then I read it.

David Powlett-Jones, twenty years old, has been seriously injured while fighting in the trenches in World War I. He has been in the army since the age of seventeen when, as a promising student in a small Welsh mining town, he was called to serve his country. Severely shell-shocked, he has spent months unconscious and much of a year in recovery. To survive, he must rebuild a sense of self and an ability to trust.  His doctor advises him to find a small community with enough but not not too much social interaction, preferably at a high altitude where the air quality will be of some benefit. 

P.J. travels to a remote, rural region in Devon, to interview with the headmaster of a lesser-known "public" (i.e. private) for boys located on the moors. The school, originally founded to educate the sons of local farmers now serves the sons of England's middle-class citizens, and is under the direction of Algie Herries, a kind man with liberal views of education. Despite his visible "shakes" during the inteview, P.J. is immediately hired as a teacher and the novel continues to describe his life and career teaching and caring about the boys and the community of Bamfylde and its lifelong effect on him. 

The remainder of the novel concerns P.J.'s gradual healing from the trauma of war, his development as a teacher,  his emotional growth, his personal loves and family, his political development, his daily routines and relationships with students and colleagues, and eventually his ascension to leading the school community that welcomed him and drew him in when he was in need of a healing community.

Delderfield writes in a direct, unadorned style. His plot is sufficient to move the story along and contains a mixture of drama and routine. Some of the plot is predictable but still compelling. The plot of the story is not the attraction of this book. Delderfield's real success is in drawing the reader into the interior life of P.J. and the flow of life in the school over many years. He describes sittuations, episodes, students, and teachers in such a way that over the course of the book the reader feels as if he is living at the school, experiencing these people and these challenges himself. 

This book captured me completely and I read nothing else until I finished it.

Delderfield actually sets up three dimensions in this story, or three tracks, and enables the reader to experience the dynamics and changes in each of these dimensions. There is P.J. himself, his upbringing in a worker's family in a Welsh mining town and his youthful experience of war setting the stage for his personal and political evolution through his life. There is England between the two world wars, both a nation and an empire, shaken and wary after a generation of loss and waste in the trenches of Europe and reluctant to resort to violence despite the rebirth of German militarism. This track also includes a very informative view of British politics from World War I, through prosperity and depression, and to the brink of World War II. Finally, there is the school itself, Bamfyld, and its role in the story as both a microcosm of Great Britain and an almost mystical source of teaching,  healing, and growth. These three dimensions of the story are smoothly, seamlessly, integrated. Success in any one of these spheres would make a good book. Success in all three makes this a great book.

I do not know why the book has been reprinted for the American market now. Perhaps the Harry Potter phenomenon has generated curiosity or familiarity with the traditional British school system. The book provides some of the same satisfaction as the Harry Potter novels, if those novels had been told from the perspective of Dumbledore and there were no visible magic happening. Perhaps its views on education and the challenges of developing character, values, and responsibility while instilling knowledge and skills add to our conversation about how and what to teach. What I do know is that I am very pleased that I was finally moved to pick up a book I had contemplated reading for so long only to find myself immediately and completely immersed in its world. Thank you Heather!

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