CIDER WITH ROSIE has two things going for it, what it tells and how it tells it. Author Laurie Lee (1914 - 1997) wrote this memoir of his childhood in a rural English village in 1959, restoring to memory something ancient that had been lost, how villages used to get on before progress intervened. His family moved to tiny Slad, in Gloucestershire, in the Cotswolds region, when he was three. It was a large family--four older half-siblings, plus Lee and his three siblings--and their mother. Their father essentially abandoned the family there in a crumbling old house that flooded with every rain, though he occasionally sent support. Like all the villagers, the Lee clan lived without plumbing or electricity or motor vehicles, in a social structure that reached back, he says at one point, to the Stone Age. The family was poor, but it survived rather happily, and Lee enjoyed a full range of delights, from boyhood roughhousing to church outings, all at the eight miles per hour pace of a horse drawn vehicle. The village unit was a balanced one, one that absorbed eccentricities and the occasional crime, with a way of life made purposeful under the watchful eye of the church and the local Squire. Just as Lee comes of age, it changes dramatically, with the arrival of cars, the death of the Squire, the slipping grip of the church on its parishioners, and, in the family, the loss of the older sisters to marriage.
Lee documents all of this in language that captures the child's worldview and wonder. The first chapter is a three-year-old's kaleidoscopic impressions of his environment, which grow more sharply into focus as Lee ages. It is very immediate, and it is as if the village as it was had never entered the twentieth century. Lee writes lyrically, but also honestly. His prose is warm, witty and full of love, without sacrificing reality or slipping into the phoniness of nostalgia or sentimentality. At the center of the book is the complete portrait of his mother, whose ditziness and undying hope that her husband would return to her someday probably kept her sane as she kept the family together.
This is part one of what became a trilogy. Lee's account of leaving the village and experiencing first London, then Spain as Civil War breaks out there, AS I WALKED OUT ONE MIDSUMMER MORNING, is also terrific.