Such was my disappointment after reading Z for Zachariah that I began to wonder whether I had been deluding myself over the high regard in which I hold works of what might broadly be termed teenage literature. I need to specify here that I'm talking about works published up to the 1980s. Once I came to this Far Place, and found the concerns of my teaching to be very different, there proved to be little time available for reading such material and I suppose I lost touch with the genre - though with honourable exceptions like Pullman and Gaiman. But there was a time when I would have made the claim that the quality of work written specifically with a younger audience in mind was generally higher than that of most adult literature.
Reading John Branfield's The Fox in Winter over the last weekend did much to confirm the truth of that claim such that I no longer wonder if I'd been deluded. And the funny thing is that I came to read it quite by accident. It's not particularly well-known in any way I'm aware of (unlike Zachariah.) I've never heard of a school adopting it as a 'reader' and never seen any fuss about it, or its author, in print. I'm not even sure how the battered hardback version I've got came into my possession. I didn't buy it, so I assume I must have salvaged it at some point when it was about to be thrown away by some school I've been in in the course of my winding career. The cover doesn't look particularly attractive, and I only read it out of a sense of duty, feeling that since I'd somehow acquired it I'd better do it some kind of justice.
It turned out to be a great little novel, being strong on place, character and theme. It deals wonderfully sympathetically, yet entirely unsentimentally, with the developing relationship between a teenage girl and the old man she befriends as he approaches the end of his life. That might sound somewhat trite but Branfield avoids all the cliches and makes the situation ring entirely true. His treatment of the inevitable indignities of old age is funny and sad and all too real. It's such a rich, and in its way subtle, novel that I've found myself mulling it over despite having finished it last Sunday, a full three days ago.
Strange to think that it's now an almost entirely forgotten work, and I suspect that even in its day it didn't get that much attention.