Dec 2, 2011

The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden: Book Bloggers Virtual Advent

The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden Advent Tour 2011 button

Today’s post is part of Marg and Kelly’s Book Blogger Virtual Advent Tour, a tradition that invites book bloggers to share holidays-themed posts throughout December, and which is now in its sixth year. Yesterday I shared a list of holidays/winter books, so for my tour stop today I thought I’d use Rumer Godden’s The Story of Holly and Ivy as an example of a story that Gets It Right and take a moment to consider the reasons why.

The Story of Holly and Ivy is, as we’re told in the very first sentence, “a story about wishing”. Ivy is an orphan girl with nowhere to go for Christmas; Holly a doll desperately wishing to be bought for the right little girl on Christmas Eve. Eventually the two find their way to each other, as the reader always knows they will, but not without some tribulations along the way.

The Story of Holly and Ivy was, as Jenny’s recommendations never fail to be, completely charming and delightful. My brief synopsis might have made it sound saccharine, but Godden’s writing is sweet and comforting without ever crossing the line into sentimentality. And the reasons why she manages to do this so effectively tie in with what I was saying yesterday about the perfect balance between comfort and darkness.

One of the many reasons why I read fiction is because even the most terrible events become orderly (and thus far more manageable) when shaped into a story. There’s something very comforting about narrative, no matter how dark the contents. And of course, there’s something even more comforting about stories that provide the kind of justice and happy resolution that real life so often lacks (see: all the reasons why I love Eva Ibbotson). The Story of Holly and Ivy is one of those stories, and what makes it particularly effective is that it subtly acknowledges the possibility that things could not turn out alright.

Stories about wish fulfilment run the risk of coming across as smug – if you build a narrative universe in which those who are in need are rewarded, you may inadvertently imply that anyone who doesn’t get their wish simply didn’t want it (or deserve it) enough. This could easily have happened with The Story of Holly and Ivy, but the reason why it doesn’t is that the sheer desperation giving strength of Ivy’s wish doesn’t allow the possibility that bad things will happen to good people to be denied. Ivy leaves her orphanage and gets a train to go in search of her nonexistent grandmother, who will have a Christmas tree and a warm fire and a lovely doll waiting for her. This is, of course, an act of complete desperation, but what drives Ivy forward is the overwhelming darkness of the alternative. Ivy never lets herself acknowledge that she has no grandmother because she needs one so desperately.

The Story of Holly and Ivy is a story about everything going right, but it’s also a story that, in a very delicate balancing act, doesn’t erase the possibility that it could have gone wrong. There are Little Match Girls out there, and readers know that they far outnumber the Ivys. What it all comes down to, then, is hope – an emotion which is very easy to dismiss and minimise (and yes, to articulate in sentimental terms), but which at the end of the day none of us can do without.

This is what I particularly look for in stories around this time of the year: a kind of hope that is not cheapened because the narrative acknowledges just how desperately we need it. What are the elements that make a perfect holiday story to you?

Don’t forget to visit Darren, Patricia, Abigail and Megan for today’s other Advent Tour stop. And if you’re curious, here are my posts from past years:

2010: Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan (joint review with Chris)
2009: A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
2008: A Portuguese Christmas Recipe
2007: A Christmas Miscellany

Many thanks to Marg and Kelly for hosting again this year!

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. This sounds so lovely. I love the idea too of a doll getting top billing in the title!

  2. Oh! This sounds like a wonderful Christmas story! I will definitely need to get it!

    I will thoroughly admit that my perfect holiday stories all have happy endings that bring tears to my eyes at the end. My absolute favourite is Louisa May Alcott's The Quiet Little Woman, about a little orphan girl who so desperately wants only a family who loves her.

  3. The story does sound a little sweet, but I adore sweet books this time of year - they help put me in the Christmas spirit.

  4. Have never heard of this book before, but it does sound like something I want to read this month to get me in the spirit! I have found my whimsy fading this year and reading your post made me think perhaps I'd find it in this book. Thanks!

  5. Ow! That post hurt a little, Ana. Overly sentimental, unrealistic books often irritate me but it sounds like you found The Story of Holly and Ivy to be a perfect balance. What year was it published? The cover picture you provided looks old but that might just be the art style they used.

    Patricia @ Lady with Books

  6. That cover looks familiar and makes me wonder if I read this before.

    I love the way you describe the book and the reasons why...admittedly I do go for some cheap sentimentality at times, but what you've described here, I think is my very favorite kind of book.

  7. My favorite Christmas story is really a ballet - The Nutcracker. No matter what version it takes, it always seems to deal with the inevitable leaving-childhood-behind ache that has never really left me, so it's especially strong at Christmas when I see the world through girlish eyes again.

    I enjoyed hearing about The Story of Holly and Ivy, which I haven't read but I'll now keep an eye out for it. If you can't get sentimental at Christmas, when can you?

  8. Thanks for joining in again, Ana! It is great that you have been participating for 5 years now. :)

    And, now I want to read this book...

  9. This looks like such a sweet story- and I don't mind a little sentimentality. I'm always looking for my next favorite Rumer Godden, too- so eager to see if I can find a copy.

  10. Great post and wonderful insights into why we read fiction. Hope you have a Merry Christmas!

  11. I like Rumer Godden's writing for the very reasons you articulate: she manages to convey emotion without being sentimental.

    Thanks for sharing your review!

  12. It sounds lovely. I've just requested it from the library. It seems I'll be getting a horrible looking reprint from 2004 and not the lovely old edition you show in this post. (Still, a reprint means the library has it, so I can't complain too much.)

  13. It sounds lovely. I've just requested it from the library. It seems I'll be getting a horrible looking reprint from 2004 and not the lovely old edition you show in this post. (Still, a reprint means the library has it, so I can't complain too much.)

  14. This does indeed sound like a wonderful story, and like it's perfect for the holiday season. I am going to have to grab it from the library. Thanks for sharing this post and bringing it to my attention!

  15. Oh yay! Oh, this book! I'm so glad you liked it! I absolutely love Rumer Godden, and her children's books are miraculously non-saccharine considering how many of them are about dolls. You should read more! They are all wonderful though not all Christmasy! The Doll's House is about a family of dolls that wants a, um, a house; and The Fairy Doll is extremely wonderful too, it is all about a little girl called Elizabeth who isn't very good at anything but then she gets this doll that helps her be braver. Both not saccharine!

  16. I used to have a copy of the very same edition of this book that you show here. I read it over and over every year at Christmastime. The book eventually disappeared, and I never heard of it again. For some reason, I thought it was an odd little novelty book someone in my family picked up but that no one else in the world actually read. It was only in the last couple of years that I learned that it was a proper book with a proper author who wrote other things people love! I've been wanting to get another copy of this of my own--and to read more Rumer Godden.

  17. This does sound like an interesting story; I liked reading your review of it and why you particularly enjoyed this story. I'll have to look for it! I hope you have a wonderful Christmas season!


  18. I have to get this for Holly-Anne! I have heard of this book before, I haven't read it though. I think it sounds interesting. I like how you talk about how this season isn't all just happy jolly gifts, that it has it's dark side too. Lovely post for the Advent Tour, Nymeth! Happy holidays to you!

  19. Sounds sweet! happy holidays!

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

  20. ahh memories, I grew up reading this book every December! My mom always kept a basket of Christmas books together that she'd bring out every year after Thanksgiving for me :)

  21. I haven't read this since I was child and it is past time that I did, I think.

    I need something magical and whimsical at Christmas, that makes me both emotional and happy; it's why I love cheesy Christmas feel-good moves (that have the potential to turn out miserable but don't) and I love, love, love The Nutcracker.

  22. I read this book when I was quite small - it appeared as a brightly colored center section in one of my mother's "women's magazines." I later became a fan of Rumer Godden's, but never knew she had written this book until I discovered it again (with a shriek of joy!) when my own kids were small. I loved the razor's edge that the story walks on - the moments when everything could have ended in disaster (like the half-buried key) that provide enough tension even for an adult reader.

  23. Sounds like a good Christmas read.

  24. Sounds cute! I love the cover illustration.

    I don't really read seasonally, so I wouldn't know what sort of Christmas books I like. I tend to watch really bloody and violent movies, not sure what that says about me. :P

  25. Sounds like a good Christmas read; really like the cover illustration. Hope you have a good Christmas season.

  26. It's the first time I hear of this book, but if it has yours and Jenny's seal of approval, it must be great!

    Good point about wish fulfillment and being worth of it (or not). I think this is especially important in children's books.

  27. A lovely story for this time of year - or any time of year, really. I like uplifting tales of hope and wish fulfillment any time! :-)

  28. Jill: I loved how all the toys were anthropomorphised. It could have been sappy but wasn't.

    Court: Oh, I need to read that Louisa May Alcott story! I loved the Christmas scene in Little Women to pieces.

    Chris: It was! Jenny's recommendations are always the best.

    Kathy: Me too :)

    Cat: I hope the book helps! I'm not quite in the Christmas spirit yet myself, but hopefully it's a matter of time.

    Patricia: The balance here is just right :) The book is from 1958, which explains the cover and the general slightly old-fashioned feel.

    Amy: Mine too!

    Julia Phillips Smith: The Nutcacker is a great one, yes!

    Kelly: Thank you (and Marg) for hosting!

    Jeane: This was my first time reading her, but I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.

    Tami: Thank you and likewise!

    Sprite: I'm happy to hear she does this in her other books too!

    Rocalisa: I really dislike the more recent cover as well :\ But yes, at least it means the book is easy to find!

    Zibilee: It would be a great one to read aloud, I think.

  29. Jenny: Thanks again for the lovely recommendation! I should let you pick all my books for me :P I'll definitely look for The Doll's House and The Fairy Doll.

    Teresa: Did you hear that some of her books are being re-released by Virago? Very exciting that they'll become more widely available.

    Betty: Thank you and likewise!

    Susan: Happy Holidays to you as well! I hope you and Holly-Anne enjoy this.

    Shelleyrae: Thank you and likewise :)

    Allison: Sounds like a lovely tradition!

    Claire: Have you ever seen it performed? It must be such a magical experience. And I know just what you mean about something magical and whimsical.

    Nancy: Yes, exactly! She makes you wonder even when you know this is the kind of story where it can't *not* be okay. But the happy ending is so fragile.

    Pepca: It was :)

    Heidenkind: lol! Well, sometimes I do need to take my mind off the holidays. Perhaps I'll try that this year :P

    Melissa: Thank you! You too :)

    Alex: Yes it is *dreams of writing a whole dissertation about it* :P

    Joanna: To me they're especially satisfying at Christmas, but there's always a place for them.

    Kaye: I thought it was, yes :)

  30. sounds like a perfect holiday story!

  31. What a sweet wonderful story! I am going to get it because I want to collect childhood Christmas books.
    Thank you for sharing it with us :)
    Advent Tour Day 11


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.