The fourth book in L. M. Boston’s Green Knowe series is a step away from the usual formula. Tolly is absent once more, though luckily Mrs Oldknow has returned in time to receive a letter from young Ida, (from The River at Green Knowe) asking her if her friend Ping might stay with her in her mysterious, magically inclined house. Missing Tolly, Mrs Oldknow agrees, and soon Ping, a young Burmese orphan and refugee, is happily exploring Toseland Thicket at Green Knowe.
But the story begins long before this, in the Congo, where a young gorilla is separated from his family and captured in order to make the long journey from his tropical home to the concrete realm of the Zoo. In one of the most evocative descriptions of gorilla life and environments I’ve ever read, Boston sets the scene for the story to come with descriptions such as: “even at noon the jungle is like a heavily curtained room”, and “thunderstorms worthy of the beginning of the world”. If you have discovered Boston’s incredible use of language in her previous books, then this one won’t fail to disappoint.
When Ping and Hanno the gorilla first meet at the Zoo, there is an instant connection bordering on the spiritual. It therefore seems almost fate that when Hanno goes missing from the Zoo (escaping via a clumsily locked door) it is at Toseland Thicket that Ping finds him. Drawing on what must have been carefully researched facts about gorillas and their lives (not surprising since the book was written when gorillas were first being seriously studied), Boston creates an utterly realistic bond between boy and gorilla.
But an escaped gorilla is big news, and the authorities cannot be drawn away for long, despite Ping’s best efforts. With the police and Hanno’s Keeper moving in, it is finally up to Hanno to make a choice: captivity or freedom?
A Stranger at Green Knowe is often considered the best of the Green Knowe books because of the sensitive and detailed way in which the gorilla’s circumstances are brought to life (there’s no sappy Disney Mighty Joe Young here!). Her descriptions on his way of life, his powerful disposition and the tragedy of his being are nothing less than sublime. Like she did with the blind Susan and West Indian Jacob of Treasure of Green Knowe, Boston shows a wisdom before her time.
However, some people may miss Tolly and the magical elements of the mansion, as this book is focused solely on the real life mystery of the gorillas. Rest assured though, in the next book, An Enemy at Green Knowe, both Tolly and the magic are brought back in full force. If you are into gorilla stories, I can suggest some movies that you may enjoy: Rene Russo’s Buddy, Back to the Wild concerning a gorilla taught sign language, and of course Gorillas in the Mist.