When Max, Asta, Thea and Van’s mother dies they are devastated. Already fatherless, they feel cast adrift on a sea of despair and misery. Max, the oldest, is still at university and the three girls at school, although Asta, the oldest of the sisters, feels sure she will have to leave and try to get a job. They are virtually devoid of other relatives, knowing only of a Great Aunt who is travelling. However, life is full of surprises and one of those is their Uncle Gustav Hartrich who writes to them from Freiburg. Prior to being married to Vanora’s father, their mother was married to Krispin Hartrich, a German she met whilst he was teaching in London just before the Second World War.
Uncle Gustav descends on the family and sweeps them off to his home in the Black Forest for the summer. Max, who is studying modern languages, is delighted to be relieved of the responsibility for his sisters, and pleased when his uncle is able to find him a job on a farm. Van is excited to be going abroad and happy when Herr Hartrich assures her that she is as welcome as his brother’s own children. But Asta and Thea are not so sure. Asta, who had hoped to study art, is miserable, worried and unable to respond to his kindness, whilst Thea, a student at the Lingeraux Ballet School, is afraid that she will not be able to return.
The family travels to Germany where they are met by a welcoming, hospitable, but undeniably different, family. After a while they all begin to relax but Asta, who is uncomfortably aware that she has behaved badly at the outset, finds it more difficult than the others. However, along with their cousins Liesl and Rosa, they begin to enjoy exploring the Black Forest. Without wanting to give too much away to those who haven’t read the book, everything works out well: Great Aunt Beatrice turns up, the girls return to London after the summer in the knowledge that they can always return to Germany and there is the obligatory hint of romance.
The descriptions of the Black Forest were wonderful and I was very pleased to visit Freiburg and see something of what Mabel Esther Allan described even forty years after the 1957 publication date. BUT it was not the Black Forest that really captivated me but Lindau where the last three chapters are set. Lindau on an island in the Bodensee; Lindau with its harbour guarded by lion and lighthouse, Lindau of the cobbled streets and old buildings. For years I read the descriptions until finally, about twenty years later, I was able to visit. And I loved it. It was magical and picturesque and full of the atmosphere of another time.
I don’t think it’s over-stating the case to say that Mabel Esther Allan inspired in me, a child growing up in fairly straitened circumstances in the 1980s in the north east of Scotland, a desire to travel, to meet different people and experience cultures not my own. Her books are full of evocative descriptions but also of the idea that travel broadens the mind. You can be sure that characters who don’t espouse that philosophy will not be the leads in her books.