Book Review: A String in the Harp

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

In this modern-to-medievel time-travel fantasy, a family of three children and their father go to live in Wales for the winter, grieving the loss of their wife and mother.  Twelve-year-old Peter finds a key that opens a portal into ancient Wales, and he and his sisters must resist a rising threat when knowledge of the key spreads to those who wish to misuse it.

The book is recommended by several good sources and is well written, with good character development and a sustained sense of magic lurking at the edges of the children’s dreary lives.  Unfortunately, the dreariness of their lives seems to originate in their relationship with their father, who is emotionally and physically absent from their  lives, and seems untroubled that his son, especially, is desperately unhappy.  Peter, in reaction, continuously indulges his anger and bitterness, and retreats miserably into himself, unable to cope with his grief.

While the three siblings demonstrate loyalty and tenderness among each other, their distant relationship with their father is based on an egalitarian arrangement, evincing neither tenderness nor respect.  Although the story is told primarily from the children’s point of view, he is referred to throughout the story as “David”, even in the children’s thoughts (although they do call him “Dad” to his face.)  This subtly encourages the reader to think of the father as having equal status not only with his own children but also with themselves.  Near the end of the story, a conversation between Peter and his father makes the egalitarian basis of their family explicit.  Peter says:

No matter what we do [about where to live], we want it to be our decision, not just yours.”
Unreadable thoughts flickered across David’s face.  “You’re all so young,” he protested mildly.  “I can’t help thinking of you as my children!”
“We’re getting older.”
“Almost too fast.  You’re very persuasive, you know.  I’m not at all sure I have much chance against the three of you.  There’s a tremendous lot to be considered.”
“We’ll all consider it,” Peter pleaded (363-364).

Peter’s claim that the children should have a say in an important decision, and his father’s quick acceptance of his claim, confirms the assumption hinted at throughout the story that the children equal their father in status.  This arrangement absolves the father of his natural responsibility to lead and protect his family (a responsibility this father has steadfastly avoided).

Equally concerning is the father’s lack of tenderness toward his children.  Following the traumatic loss of their mother, he seeks solace from his grief in isolation and overwork.  He abandons them to their own devices, requiring them to live in a socially isolated and unheated summer home in the middle of Celtic winter, and himself withdraws from their lives, adding emotional abandonment to physical neglect.   Early in the story Peter wishfully envisions a scenario of

sitting down and really talking to his father.  He would tell him why he was unhappy and explain why he had to go home.  David would listen to him sympathetically and reasonably and would offer help.  They would be friends and they would understand each other” (47-48).

In this poignant reverie the young man longs for companionship, but not wisdom or leadership from his father, and even companionship is not forthcoming.

Consistent with this devastating view of family, Peter does not resolve his grief by entering into relationship with others, but instead is given an opportunity to retreat into his own secret world – a magical one whose door opens through a key found by chance.  This key he hides from everyone except, eventually, his siblings.  Unlike Narnia’s Pevensie children, who find a wise Professor to assist them, these young people must go to great lengths to hide their activities from adults.

Although skilfully written, the bitter, secretive protagonist in this story is anything but admirable, and his father is far worse.  The biblical ideal of a family, in which parents love, lead and train their children, is entirely absent.  The magic in the story is enticing, and the interweaving of modern and historical Wales is masterful, but the detached, egalitarian family dynamic is quite poisonous.

(Full disclosure: I read the first half of this book carefully and skimmed the rest after it became clear that it would be disqualified from our home library.)

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Publication Information: Bond, Nancy. String in the Harp, A. . 1976. ISBN: 1416927719.
Categories: 1 Star, Age 08-12, Books Children Love,, Newbery Honor
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Posted on June 8, 2009

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