“One Summer’s Grace,” by Libby Purves

onesummersgrace It is unfortunate that this classic travel book by award-winning British journalist and novelist Libby Purves is not in print in the US, because American travel writers could learn a great deal by reading it. Much of our travel writing has forgotten that a truly good travel book is simply about a sense of place, interactions with people, interpersonal relationships, and a sense of dramatic movement. One Summer’s Grace: A family voyage around Britain (which you can buy easily in the UK) reminds us where travel writing started, and where it should spend more time lingering.

Purves was already a well-known writer and broadcaster by the time she set off to sail around Britain in her 38-foot cutter Grace O’Malley. What sets this 1700-mile trip apart from other sailing stories is the presence of Purves’s and her husband Paul Heiney’s children: Nicholas, age 5, and Rose, age 3. To a non-sailor like me, the angst involved in bringing children on a sometimes treacherous voyage in a small boat might not be apparent, but Purves writes so exquisitely about the dangers of yachting, the unpredictability of the sea, and the smallness of the children themselves, that I was persuaded at every turn that the parents’ self-questioning was justified.

The title comes from the voyage: one summer’s grace, from jobs, from school, from middle-class life. A family voyage, to test themselves and their capabilities, but also to knit the family together in a way that humdrum homelife never can. Within this theme, the book moves a bit like the sea itself, with upswells of frustration and fed-uppishness on the part of the parents (who have added stressors as the ship’s sole crew), and peevish willfullness on the part of the children.

Every harbor entry offers its own tension, both with the challenges of sailing and the level of fractiousness on board. And each offers its own picture of Britain, that great island nation. In fact, Libby Purves has forever changed the way I, a landlocked mountain-loving American, view the British Isles. Never before have I read a travel book that forced me to view the country in its true natural state, a seafaring, fishing country, a net of harbors and ports fed by the interior, much of its initial grandeur now forgotten. But not quite.

One Summer’s Grace is packed with jewels of description and interaction. As sailors, Purves and her family have instant access to harbormasters, ancient fishermen, and salty seaside landladies, none of whom would ever have time for the common tourist.

And Purves sees each port not as a tourist trap or an industrialized dump, but as a haven. “Maybe one of the reasons why yachtsmen, as a body,” she says, “have been to slow to take up the cudgels for conservation of wild places is that our own untamed wilderness is always waiting for us outside the harbour mouth, and so wild is it out there that a yachtsman years — more than most outdoor people — for the security of buildings, teashops, launderettes, and telephone boxes.” Not always a laudable trait, she admits, but to the reader it gives Purves a sensibility rarely found in travel writing these days — the precious gift of seeing a place from a completely new perspective, even if it’s been written to rags in newspaper travel sections.

Together with its sheer good writing, Purves lifts the book’s narrative with two talents: honesty (towards herself, her family, and her country), and an ability to balance the stories of her family and their voyage with the past history and present circumstances of each port town they visit. It’s not an easy task, but she makes it look simple.

My copy of One Summer’s Grace was published in 1997, ten years after the original voyage, and includes an epilogue, reflecting back on the journey and its effect on the family itself — what the children remember, how it drew them together, and how daft Purves and her husband think they must have been at the time.

What I found most interesting was her observation that this journey, far from pushing Purves further into nonfiction writing, actually steered her more strongly to fiction. “What we discovered during those months of close confinement,” she says, “was that you can hold off a child’s boredom and unease for half an hour with a new toy, or half a day with an outing; but that a new story will keep them going for weeks on end,” persuading her, she notes, that anthropologists are right when they say that humans actually need a good supply of stories more than possessions, comfort, or sex.

Her attraction to storytelling is in the end what makes the book live. I have an unholy addiction to reading books by Brits who travel around their island nation, and it is only the ones written by true storytellers that actually spark both my wanderlust and my imagination. Libby Purves is one of those writers.

2008 marked the 20th anniversary of this sailing, and the book Libby Purves produced rings just as honest and true as it did when first published. I have no doubt it will remain a classic travel book, keeping spellbound both sailors and non-sailors alike.

Several of Libby Purves’s books are in print in the US, including the acclaimed novel Casting Off:

(I recommend US residents order One Summer’s Grace from Amazon UK.)

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  1. Julie Meecham Reply