Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter

Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter 
by Susan Witting Albert
Historical Fiction/Mystery Series

The Tale of Hill Top Farm (Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter )

In 1905, Beatrix Potter is a best-selling author mourning the loss of her fiance and trying to become independent of her demanding parents. She has just bought Hill Top Farm in the Lakes District in Yorkshire. She loves the beauty and remoteness of the area and hopes to enjoy many getaways there. She can not yet take possession of the farm house for it is rented to the Jennings family, the tenant farmers. Miss Potter intends to stay with Miss Abigail Tolliver, a spinster in the village of Sawrey, but Miss Tolliver has just died unexpectedly and the village gossips believe it was murder. When Miss Potter arrives, the gossips have something else to talk about : the eccentric city woman who keeps wild animals as pets and wants to farm! Some of the locals are even downright hostile to Miss Potter but she endears herself to some of the ladies by befriending a young boy wrongly accused of stealing money from his school. Miss Potter also discovers that a valuable painting has gone missing from Miss Tolliver's house and the vicar can't find the parish register anywhere. A mysterious woman known only to Miss Tolliver arrives and shocks everyone for being more eccentric than Miss Potter. Miss Tabitha Twitchett, senior cat of Sawrey, formerly belonging to Miss Tolliver, enlists the aid of her canine and feline friends to solve some of the mysteries the stupid humans can't figure out. Meanwhile, Miss Potter's animal companions discover that the country is more exciting than they ever dared to dream. This is a sweet, charming book that has the flavor of Beatrix Potter's novels and reminds me a lot of Cranford or Lark Rise to Candleford (for you PBS fans). There are twin villages populated by quirky, colorful characters. The story is very quiet. There are several mysteries to be solved and none of them are heart-pounding page turners but simple, ordinary things that are lost and need to be found in the usual ways. I really liked the setting though I had a hard time keeping all the characters straight and kept referring to the cast list in the front of the book. I liked the the setting and the characters' actions felt realistic. No one was doing anything that someone from that time should not be doing, especially the female characters. Miss Potter is really a secondary character in the novel. The main characters are really the cats and Rascal, the Jack Russell Terrier. This book may not be to everyone's liking. The animals can talk to each other and even read and write. They can not talk to humans though. This book would be best enjoyed with a cup of tea and a good English scone. Those who love Beatrix Potter's books will enjoy this story and want to learn more about the author. I highly recommend the movie Miss Potter starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor as a starting point. 

The Tale of Holly How  (Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter 2) 

Summer 1906: Beatrix Potter is back in Sawrey working hard to renovate the farm house and make the farm productive. She has purchased some sheep from old Ben Hornby, a crusty old shepherd who breeds the best Herdwick sheep. When Beatrix goes to collect the sheep, their pen is open and Mr. Hornby turns up dead. Beatrix suspects the death was no accident. The sheep may have a clue but they've disappeared! Meanwhile, the animals have their own dilemma. Someone has dug up a badger sett and kidnapped a badger Mum and her two children to use as bait in a sport known as badger baiting. Technically, badger baiting is against the law because it's a form of gambling but the human law enforcement officials have a hard time pinning down the culprit. Bosworth Badger knows something must be done and it's up to the animals of the Cuckoo Brown Woods to come to the rescue. Other tensions in Sawrey include the position of head teacher at the school. The locals want the position to go to their own Miss Nash but old Lady Langford has proposed her own candidate, an Oxford educated missionary who is known to her companion Miss Martine. Lady Langford's young granddaughter Caroline has come to stay while arrangements can be made to send the orphaned girl to school. Caroline is lonely and unhappy with only the mean old companion/governess Miss Martine for company. Beatrix sympathizes with the poor girl and tries to help, but Lady Langford is ill and uninterested in outside influence. Then Caroline overhears a shocking conversation which could affect her life as well as her grandmother's. It's up to Caroline, her friend Jeremy and the animals to convince someone to help. Miss Potter proves adept at finding clues and she may be the one to solve the mysteries with help from her small friends. This book is much more of a mystery than the first. I was able to figure out one of the mysteries but the other two were harder and more complex. I couldn't put the book down until I was finished. I enjoyed this charming picture of country life. In this book I was more interested in the animals than the humans. The animal plot is in the tradition of of Charlotte's Web and Redwall. If you don't like talking animals who act like humans, then don't read this book. There were some shocking instances of animal cruelty and abuse that were hard to read but otherwise I quite enjoyed this story.

The Tale of Cuckoo Brown Wood (Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter 3) 

April 1907: Spring is springing in Sawrey and Miss Potter is back at Hill Top Farm happily ensconced in her newly renovated farm house. She's perfectly happy with the changes except for a problem with rats in the attic. Miss Felicia Frummety, the farm cat, is too uppity to kill rats and the other village cats refuse to violate the Cat Code Of Honour which states that no cat may poach on another cat's territory without permission. Miss Potter will simply have to hire more cats. Ridley Rattail, gentleman rat, resides in the attic with his kindly hostess Rosabelle, her sister's family and a whole host of carousing rats. Poor Ridley can never get a moment's peace. He takes it upon himself to advertise for cat assassins for hire little realizing that when a new and stubborn cat moves in, Ridley's own life may be on the line. He has to decide whether he has the courage to save his kind hostess or save himself. Other unhappy changes are coming to Sawrey. The vicar is besieged by unwanted guests who won't leave; Jeremy Crosfield is facing the end of his schooling and beginning of adult life, though he passed the entrance exam for grammar school; Caroline Longford's grandmother is still strict and refuses to allow Caroline to associate with the village children and plans to hire a governess to teach Caroline how to be a lady; Deidre Malone has been sent from the orphanage to help care for the veterinarian's children. The other children tease her because she has red hair, a sure sign of witchcraft. Only Jeremy and Caroline are kind. Deidre invites her new friends on a hunt for fairies so she can determine whether she still has the gift she inherited from her mother. The others agree to this one last journey into childhood make believe. With the help of Miss Potter and the wild creatures of Cuckoo Brow Wood, they may find their dreams coming true. Major Christopher Kittredge of Raven Hall and late of the South African war, has brought home a new bride. She too has red hair and was an actress, causing locals to believe she's a witch or a ghost. Even so the locals are excited to attend a party at Raven Hall where they can view the lady up close and get a glimpse of the famous Luck, a fairy-made glass goblet given to Major Kittredge's ancestors for good luck. Luck has caused nothing but bad luck and Major Kittredge hopes his marriage with be the start of good luck. When Miss Potter overhears some things she shouldn't, she worries that Mrs. Kittredge may bring more bad luck to Raven Hall and big changes to Sawrey. The plot in this book is slow to start. The real mystery doesn't begin until halfway through the book. Too much time is devoted to the story of the rats. I felt slightly sorry for Ridley, having been in a similar situation, but had a hard time sympathizing because he's a rat and the rats were behaving like humans and interacting with humans and I found that a bit strange. I liked the journey of the three children and how their search for fairies was their way of resisting growing up. I know how they feel and I can relate to Miss Potter's interest, never having grown up myself and wanting my young friends to stay children as long as possible. The real mystery wasn't much of a surprise. It's very similar to one of the mysteries in the previous book and even though I figured it would all end happily, I had to keep reading until I was done. This is my least favorite of the series so far.

The Tale of Hawthorn House (Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter 4)

Emily Shaw, lately maid of Lady Longford, has taken a position at Hawthorn House for the summer. The renter, a Miss Rowena Keller, has promised Emily a good job in London after the summer reason and Emily is excited to finally make it to the big city. First though, someone has to find a home for Baby Flora. When plans for the baby fall through, a mysterious old woman grabs the baby and takes off leaping over the garden wall. Miss Potter is back at Hilltop Farm enjoying the peace and prosperity of her farm. She has several new animal companions, including Kep the Collie and Jemima Puddle Duck, the hapless duck who fell in love with a fox who wanted to eat her and her ducklings for dinner. Jemima is sitting on a new set of eggs and is determined to hatch and raise her own ducklings. It's taking an awfully long time for the eggs to hatch but Jemima refuses to give up nesting through she begins to long for the comfortable lifestyle the fox Reynard Vulpes offered her before Kep discovered the fox's treachery. Miss Potter is shocked to discover a baby on her doorstep. As much as she loves children she knows she can't care for a baby at this time and turns Baby Flora over to Captain Miles Woodcock, Justice of the Peace. The Captain's sister Dimity is delighted to care for the baby. She's always wanted to marry and have children of her own. She's in love with Major Christopher Kittredge but her brother doesn't approve of the match. He'd rather see her married to Will Heelis, the solicitor while Dimity dreams of marrying her brother to Miss Potter. Soon the humans romantic entanglements and the identity of the baby will be the talk of Sawrey both from the humans and animals alike as Miss Potter strives to uncover the mystery of the baby's missing mother. Meanwhile Emily discovers that life in London is not all it promised to be. This is another very quiet mystery. There's very little plot in this novel. Most of the story centers around Jemima Puddleduck's story which parallels Emily's. The animals are charming and funny and provide the more interesting moments of the book. The mystery involves the mysterious Thorn Folk, a type of fairy seen only by children, animals and a few knowing adults which some readers may be put off by. I would have preferred more about Beatrix Potter solving mysteries of the more common sort. I disliked the way the author stepped out of the story to address the readers and explain things much like in a children's book of this period. I also did not like how the author felt the need to relate too many facts about Beatrix Potter which had little relevance to the story. The series seems to have taken an unexpected turn after the first two mysteries. I will probably continue to read the rest of the series though for I find them very calming, easy reads.

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