The Land of Green Ginger is the second Winifred Holtby book I’ve read, the first being South Riding, which I read (and loved) in February. This one was published a few years earlier than South Riding, in 1927.
It’s the story of a missionary’s daughter, Joanna Burton, who is born in South Africa but raised in England by her aunts. As a young woman, Joanna is a lively, high-spirited person who dreams of travelling and visiting faraway lands. Then during the First World War she falls in love with Teddy Leigh, a young man on his way to fight in the trenches in France, and they get married.
When Teddy returns from the war to their home in Yorkshire, he is in poor health and Joanna finds herself caring for an invalid husband, managing a farm, and trying to look after their two small children, Patricia and Pamela. Life is hard for Joanna and the only person she can rely on for help is their Hungarian lodger, Paul Szermai. But Joanna has never been popular with the neighbours and when people begin to gossip about her relationship with Szermai, things become even more challenging for the Leigh family.
There are some interesting subplots too, including the tale Paul Szermai shares with Joanna of his life in Hungary and other parts of Europe and how it was affected by war and communism. We also see the attitudes of the local people to the group of immigrant workers who have been employed in Joanna’s village and for whom Szermai is acting as interpreter. Holtby does a good job of portraying a small rural community who are suspicious of outsiders and of anything that might change their way of life.
Although I found Paul Szermai and Teddy Leigh difficult to like, Holtby still managed to make me feel some sympathy for all of her main characters: Szermai, because of his tragic history; Teddy, frustrated by the sickness that is keeping him confined to his bed; and of course, Joanna who has had to abandon all her earlier dreams and ambitions, yet still shows a lot of naivety and innocence. Joanna seems to be unaware of how she is perceived by other people and as a result she never quite manages to fit into life in a small village where everybody knows everybody else’s business.
So The Land of Green Ginger is a dark and emotional book, but the ending leaves us feeling more hopeful. It doesn’t have the same depth and scope as South Riding, but I really like Winifred Holtby’s writing and this is still a compelling story. And finally, I want to mention how much I love the covers of the new Virago editions of Holtby’s books!