“The Ash The Well and the Bluebell”
by Sandra Arnold
ISBN 978-0-9951191-2-3, 332pp
“The Ash, The Well and the Bluebell” is a story about moving away from your roots to find yourself and then returning to the stifling village you grew up in to try and make sense of why you had to leave. The village is Eshwell Bridge in the UK, named after the ancient ash tree that grows by the well owned in 1676 by the local herbalist and midwife rumoured to be a witch.
The prologue starts on 22 February 2011 in Christchurch, New Zealand, minutes before the earthquake where widow Lily’s adult daughter, Charlie, is fatally injured by falling debris.
Whilst Lily recuperates and grieves, the story returns to 1955 and ten year old Lily at school in Eshwell Bridge, UK. One of the story’s main themes throughout is keeping up appearances. Lily’s class are due to sit their Eleven Plus exams at the end of the school year to determine who gets to go to grammar school and who goes to secondary modern and pushed into blue collar jobs. Lily’s best friend is Israel, a boy who sees the bluebells in the wood near the well as music, a trait he shares with the woman accused of witchcraft in 1676. He has nineteen siblings and his parents are planning to let some go to Australia under a British government scheme to populate the colonies. His parents aren’t evil but poor. Lily is teamed with Francine and Christine to work on a school project. Christine has the misfortune of being a mixed race child of white parents. Her mother had had an affair with an American GI while her husband was away at war. It’s not clear why her husband agrees to bring up Christine as his. The teacher upholds the children’s social standing: Israel has to sit on the back row with the dunces, Francine and the mayor’s son sit at the front.
The story leaps about both geographically and chronologically so each chapter is headed with a location and date. The woman accused of witchcraft was drowned in the well. Lily, Christine and Francine do their school project about the woman to understand their village’s history. Ten year old Christine drowns in the well, which is written off as misadventure, but that doesn’t make sense to her classmates. The well had a cover which Christine wouldn’t have been able to dislodge by herself. Israel is sent to New Zealand. Lily gets her grammar school place, goes on to university and then works on a kibbutz in Israel where she meets Seb, a New Zealander. They marry and settle in New Zealand, planning to return to Israel. After Charlie is born, Lily visits Eshwell Bridge to introduce her daughter to her parents while Seb returns to Israel. Tragedy strikes when an accident with “an unexploded bomb”, fatally injures Seb. The details of the incident aren’t filled in. Lily returns and stays in New Zealand until 2012 when she comes back to England to bury her daughter’s ashes.
Meanwhile, there’s a chapter on Israel’s foster parents explaining how they left Scotland to settle to a new life in New Zealand and became foster parents, although they play very little part in the story. There’s a chapter from Israel’s viewpoint about growing up in New Zealand and winning a scholarship to music school in London. However, Israel’s background has already been filled in by Lily so this chapter feels redundant. Instead of going into opera, Israel becomes a rock star, buying Eshwell Bridge’s manor house to have it converted into a nursing home for his elderly father and others.
One of his visits to his father coincides with Lily’s return in 2012 with her daughter’s ashes. With nothing to keep her in New Zealand, Lily is thinking of returning permanently. The local school, for its centenary celebrations, has been cataloguing its archives and finds the original school project as Lily takes a trip down memory lane. Meeting with Israel, she learns what really happened to Christine and how the then mayor and teacher conspired to put keeping up appearances over justice for a poor, mixed race girl.
Despite the large cast and time jumps, the complex story is easy to follow. The characters are credible and well-drawn. Each has a clear voice. Sandra Arnold captures the social landscape of England and New Zealand and brings them to life. Occasionally there’s a scene that would be better being shown rather than reported. Lily’s brother tells her his wife divorced him on discovery of an affair, but this seems thrown in to demonstrate how impossible it was for Lily’s brother to be true to his actual sexuality at the time and doesn’t add anything to the actual story. In 2012, Lily learns that the results of the Eleven Plus were not adhered to; although equal numbers of girls and boys passed, five percent of the girls who passed were told they’d failed and five percent of boys who’d failed were told they’d passed. The implication is that Christine actually passed and the mayor’s son had actually failed but both told the reverse. This point is a significant part of Christine’s story.
The ending of the story is left open for readers to interpret and figure out whether Lily and Israel’s stories now converge. Now they are free to be true to themselves, can they build a relationship or will they cling on to who they were and let social conventions remain a barrier? “The Ash, The Well and the Bluebell” is an entertaining, engaging read with compelling characters.