Wednesday, 6 October 2021

The Moon in the Cloud by Rosemary Harris by Paul May

Why is this 1968 Carnegie Medal winner so little known? Or is it just me that doesn't know it? And why is it out of print? 

Author photos from 
Chosen for Children

The Moon in the Cloud is one of those winners that I had never encountered before I set out to read them all, and I'd never read anything by Rosemary Harris either.  How did I miss out? All the authors who surround Rosemary Harris on the list of winners are authors I know well—Alan Garner, K M Peyton, Ivan Southall, Leon Garfield, Edward Blishen . . . So I do wonder why I didn't know this writer because, of all the winning books I've read that are now out of print, this is the one I would most like to see back on the shelves of bookshops.

Faber cover 1968

Harris has only a short paragraph in The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. Over a period of 40 years, starting in the mid-1950s, she published 26 books for children and young adults, as well as some adult thrillers. Between 1970 and 1973 she also reviewed children's books for The Times. She died in 2019 at the age of 96 and I could find no trace of an obituary. Her best known book appears to have been out of print since 1989. This is odd because The Moon in the Cloud is not dated at all and I can see no reason why young people today wouldn't enjoy it as much as I did.  

The book is not dated because it is written with such assurance and elegance and humour. It's set in an imaginary, long-ago time in Canaan and Egypt just as God is about to send a flood to wipe out most of humanity.  In her 'Author's Note' Rosemary Harris says: 'The Flood being movable, so to speak, I've set these happenings at the time of the Egyptian Old Kingdom with a young (fictional) king on the throne.' 

The Moon in the Cloud a kind of fantasy, semi-historical novel—with talking animals. It's timeless, and thus completely accessible to a modern reader.

The two central characters are Reuben and Thamar. Reuben is a wonderfully talented animal trainer, artist and musician and Thamar is his resourceful and independent-minded wife, a strong woman who can look after herself in the most difficult situations. Together they keep a small menagerie, which is described as 'the very humble early ancestor of all circuses'. Their neighbours are Noah and his family. When Noah gets word from God that he's going to send a flood, he despatches his unpleasant son, Ham, to fetch a couple of cats and two lions from Kemi, or Egypt. The Lord has told Noah to build an Ark and take in two of every kind of animal, and Noah reasons that a trip to the dark land of Kemi to fetch cats will be a test of Ham's character.

Ham is a bad lot. He's in with the idolatrous members of the tribe who wear scarlet and gold, and affect jingling rings on their ankles. (Reuben has angered them by refusing to carve idols for them to worship). Ham openly covets Reuben's wife, and he tells Reuben that if Reuben fetches the cats and lions then he'll fix it so that Reuben and Thamar get a place on the Ark. Reuben doesn't trust Ham, but he believes that Noah will likely stand by Ham's promise. Ham, of course, does not believe that Reuben will ever return, and then he'll be able to take Reuben's wife. He already has a wife, by the way, who he treats appallingly. 

The Lord God has not been planning to save Ham:

"And—and Ham?" pleaded Noah, greatly daring.

There was a pause.

"Ham . . .?" The still small voice was delicately reflective. "I'm not so sure about Ham."

Noah pleads and God relents, warning Noah to keep an eye on his son and get on with building the Ark. The Cherubim and Seraphim, who are looking on, are sceptical about this decision:

"I must say," said one of the Cherubim who was working on a plan for the new development, "if Ham's going too it hardly seems worth all the bother and fuss."

This gives you a hint of Harris's writing style, which is brilliantly readable and often very funny. Her characters, both human and animal, are vividly drawn; the bad characters are very nasty indeed and the good characters' quirky flaws make them all the more convincing. And did I mention that Reuben can talk to the animals? Well, it's more that he can understand them and they understand him. In any case, we readers see their thoughts. Reuben's cat, Cefalu, is one of the book's most important and fully-realised characters, who is mistaken in the most dramatic way by the Egyptians for a god.

There is a lot of very funny stuff about gods here. The God whose 'still small voice' speaks to Noah is remarkably human. Here's Noah's wife's opinion of him: '"Two of everything and wood for building, food for eating, firing, doves, drink, where has Ham got to now, oh men are so inconsiderate, not a thing to wear, fancy a flood—" Privately she had always looked on the Lord God as profoundly masculine in nature.' (And Noah's wife doesn't mean to be complimentary.)

Then there are the Egyptian gods. The profoundly evil High Priest who enslaves Reuben has his double-dealing exposed by his enemy, the Vizier, and he has a lot of trouble with gods. Rosemary Harris philosophises a little about the nature of his evil. "Perhaps it's possible to describe evil as the habit of putting your own advantage first, last and all the time before anyone else's feeling or life or death. It was this ruthlessness that Reuben had also sensed about him, and which hadn't altered, except that he was now squashed evil rather than evil rampant.'

After his duplicity has been unmasked before the king the High Priest racks his brains half the night "to think which of his gods he could have offended, to bring him to this pass. There were so many of them, that was the trouble, he thought despairingly. If you kept up with some, you were bound to be easygoing with others. Many were benign, but some weren't—particularly if they had a rapacious priesthood behind them (like—well, like his own)."

The High Priest even has a mnemonic to help him remember the gods' names and attributes:

'Nut—a cow, a sacred cow, Re—a god of golden sun, Ptah—the word explains itself, Ka—will make you long to run . . .' 

It's clear that Rosemary Harris had a LOT of fun writing this book, but she managed at the same time to keep the whole thing very tight. It's beautifully plotted and has a most satisfactory ending. I was interested in what Harris said about its origins:

"I . . . had influenza, and a framework of the story surfaced from my mind: perhaps fever had something to do with it—certainly my writing was so feverish that I had dreadful trouble deciphering it when I was completing the book. Why Reuben, Thamar, and their animals, and the King of Kemi too, in connection with Noah is hard to explain. Most people who do any form of creative writing will admit that what makes a collection of characters, scenes, dialogue, spring fully armed to imaginative life, and refuse to leave it till written down—often causing inconvenience—is a mystery."

Puffin cover, 1968

It's curious that this excellent book hasn't remained in print, and I suspect it's because neither its publishers nor its readers knew quite who it was meant for. Faber call it a 'teenage book' and on GoodReads it's categorised as YA. As all the book's characters are adults, and a central part of the story concerns Ham's threatening behaviour towards Thamar, that seems reasonable. And yet . . . there are those animal characters, and it seems to be that aspect of the book that Faber were trying to emphasise when they produced a paperback edition in 1989 with a cartoonish cover that suggests a younger readership. Perhaps they were thinking Doctor Dolittle, which this book isn't. The original cover of The Moon in the Cloud, and the cover of the Puffin edition, are both more in keeping with what's inside, but neither give any hint of the humour and excitement of the book, or indeed of its more serious side. 

Faber cover by Ant Parker 1989

It's a book that resists categorisation. I love books like that, and I know that publishers often don't. I suggested at the end of last month's post that, in choosing The Moon in the Cloud, the Carnegie panel had backed away from books dealing with the controversial themes Philippa Pearce noted in The Owl Service—'illegitimacy and adultery, jealousy and revenge.' But despite its talking animals and its often light-hearted tone and humour, The Moon in the Cloud deals with fundamental human concerns: the relationship between people and their gods, and the nature of good and evil. And even though it is set in a far-distant (and fictional) past, all of its characters, both animal and human, leap from the page and feel utterly real.

I'm now looking forward to reading the other two books in the trilogy, The Shadow on the Sun and The Bright and Morning Star.

Paul May's website



Lynne Benton said...

The book sounds great, Paul - thank you for your recommendation (at least 2nd hand copies are still available!)

Penny Dolan said...

Another interesting post. I do enjoy this Carnegie Reading series, Paul.

The book does sound delightful, but probably hard for teachers to categorise too.
Also, was it, away from the Carnegie panel, a time for amusing fun or subversive ideas about religion??

I looked Rosemary Harris up to see what other titles she'd written, and discovered that she was the daughter of "Bomber" Harris.

Paul May said...

Thanks, Lynne, I'm sure you'll enjoy it. Penny I just received some hardback copies of the trilogy with reviews on the covers. 'This is a wonderfully unclassifiable story,' says The Times of The Moon in the Cloud. I hear the publishers sighing! 'Deserves to be a best-seller' says the same paper of The Shadow on the Sun. 'Compellingly readable', says another review. I'm not even sure that the books' ideas about religion are subversive. As another reviewer points out, other narrative strands are 'blended perfectly with the Old Testament simplicity which describes the Lord God's grumbles, as well as his instructions to the faithful Noah (himself rather the Noah of the Mystery plays).