In A Stitch in Time, we meet eleven-year-old Maria Foster who is heading down to Lyme Regis with her parents for a month of summer holiday. Maria is plain and small for her age, and also shy and sensitive, accustomed to being left on her own, for her parents who prefer a quiet life, treat her, in the words of Michelle Magorian who has written the intro to my copy, ‘like pleasant wallpaper’ (something poor Maria realises as well). In Lyme, Maria’s parents have rented a Victorian cottage, which looks pleasant from the outside (painted in white and green) and is furnished with pieces collected over time, some as old as the cottage, as also books and treasures (fossils among them) which the cottage’s earlier occupants collected.
At Lyme too, Maria’s parents prefer to stay quietly indoors much of the time so while there are walks and visits to the beach, they are happier when they don’t have to take them. Maria thus is left to entertain herself, which she does, collecting fossils from the beach and using the books in the house (and at the library) to identify and label them, spending hours in the lovely old Ilex tree in the garden, and having imaginary conversations with the cat who always ‘replies’ sarcastically, and voices Maria’s fears and apprehensions. But alongside, Maria also begins to hear sounds of things that aren’t there—a dog barking and crying, a swing creaking—are these also her imagination or is she a little fey with a connection to the past? Some inscriptions in books in the house, and a visit to their landlady Mrs Shand, on which she sees a sampler from the past made by ‘Harriet’, lead her to wonder about the little girl who lived in the house a hundred years before herself.
Meanwhile, Maria also finds that in the hotel next door are staying a big family—two sets of cousins, the Lucases—whom they had noticed on the drive down. One of the Lucas children is Martin who is about Maria’s age and has some interests in common—fossils and also birds and plants—but in terms of personality is quite the contrast. The two soon become friends, and Maria finds herself opening up more with the Lucas children, joining in games and doing things she didn’t think she would (and also finding that she can make friends). But the mystery from the past still occupies her mind and leads her wonder what Harriet’s story really was?
This was a lovely lovely read. I took to Maria right from the start and could connect with her, particularly her shyness and hesitation in interacting with not only those her age but also older people like Mrs Shand (Maria has so many questions but she dare not ask). I felt for her as well, for Maria has a sensitive nature and also rather profound and interesting thoughts, and quite a lot to her that her parents don’t seem to see or even care about. In fact, more often than not they try to give her treats they ‘think’ she would enjoy or expect her to react as they ‘think’ children should, not really seeing or appreciating her for what she is. I really enjoyed reading Maria’s thoughts and questions—about nature, time, the changes people go through (whether in Darwinian evolution or simply growing up), and indeed in the past (Her Uncle David at least seems to appreciate her interest in the past when he likes the calendar with old pictures she buys with the money he gives her while her parents are plain puzzled). I also loved her conversations with the house cat (who doesn’t seem to have a name), and for a moment at the beginning even wondered whether it was indeed going to turn out to be a talking cat, but of course we know soon enough that it isn’t.
Maria collecting fossils on the beach, especially since it was Lyme, had me thinking of Mary Anning who must have done the same over a century before her on those very same beaches. Once Maria meets and befriends Martin, this becomes far more interesting for Martin knows quite a bit about birds and plants, and soon they are able to share knowledge and explore the place together. Maria also finally has someone who understands her interests a little better. But it isn’t just the natural wonders that they enjoy. Maria is invited to join the Lucases on their outings, going among other places, to a historical themed August Fayre with jousting and such, and also a picnic towards the end just before all the families return home and to their ordinary lives. With them she begins to realise also that making friends and ordinary, ‘noisy’ fun is not so bad, and is in fact, something that she actually enjoys.
But we also have the mystery from the past—even if not exactly a ghost story, Maria does seem to have a connect with the little girl who lived in the house a hundred years ago, and the sounds she hears in fact do turn out to have an explanation, but somewhat different from what Maria (and indeed us readers) think it will turn out to be.
This was a wonderful read for me and a book I see myself coming back to more than once.