Megan reviews a beautifully illustrated Welsh story of migration and homesickness, hiraeth …
Valériane Leblond is a French illustrator and artist who has lived and worked in Wales since 2007. She has illustrated a number of picture books, many of which have been shortlisted for or won the Tir na n’Og Children’s Book Awards in Wales.
Her illustrations have a folk art style adding character and emotion to titles including Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi/The Four Branches of the Mabiniogi by Siân Lewis (Rily, 2015), Cymru Ar Y Map/Wales on the Map by Elin Meek (Rily, 2017, 2018) and Merch y Mêl/Little Honey Bee by Caryl Lewis (Y Lolfa, 2017, 2018).
Leblond is drawn to themes of home and belonging, bringing a fresh eye to the Welsh landscape and an understanding of hiraeth, the Welsh word meaning home sickness, or longing for your country.
The Quilt (Y Lolfa, 2020), first published in Welsh as Y Cwilt (Y Lolfa 2019) was written in French and English and translated into Welsh by Leblond. This is the first picture book Leblond has both written and illustrated, and the result is a beautifully balanced work where text and images work together to tell the story. Leblond uses a muted palette of greys, browns and greens along with spare language that adds to a quiet and solemn atmosphere.
The story is of a family who are struggling to survive in rural north Wales at the turn of the 20th century and decide to emigrate to the USA in search of a better life. They take their language, culture and skills to a new country, symbolised through the quilt that the mother makes before leaving, the geometric patterns tracing their old home and its landscape. The quilt has an important history in Wales and is a comfort to the family as they make their new home in a new land.
Told from the child’s perspective, we see that the family lives in a small, one roomed cottage by the sea, living a simple life on the land among the animals closely connected with nature, ‘we inhabited the moor and the moor inhabited us’. The text and pictures evoke the setting depicting the sights and smells of the seasons and the associated activities, ‘On spring evenings, the swallows danced in front of our house. We sheared the sheep… In winter, the smoke of the peat fires rose in the air in golden whirls.’
The reasons behind the family’s emigration are hinted at as the land and space around them closes in, ‘We couldn’t walk freely in our ancestors’ footsteps, and we had to pay a toll to walk the road.’ They prefer to move to a new world where they can work the land for free.
Before leaving on their journey, Mam makes a quilt from the same black and red flannel used for their clothes. It is intricate and precise work, ‘every stitch was like a note on a music sheet … her arm moving with the regularity of a clock’. As the family sells off their possessions to pay for the trip, the quilt and their clothes are the only belongings they have left, accompanying them as they navigate the long journey to America.
When the child feels alone inside the ship, surrounded by strange people and languages, her mother wraps the quilt around her to comfort her and remind her of home. The geometrical bird image from the quilt becomes a real swallow, following the ship taking them to America, tiny on the large ocean, giving a real sense of travelling into the unknown.
The family’s migration is echoed by the birds depicted on almost every page, leading the reader through the story. From the first spread set in autumn, a flock of geese can be seen flying, hinting at what’s to follow. The coming and the going of the swallows marks the seasons, as well as echoing the family’s journey on the ship, crossing the ocean to a new country, with seagulls signalling their arrival. The swallows arrive at the end of the story, when the family have finished building their new home, with the quilt pinned to the barn, ‘We inhabited the land, and the land inhabited us.’
Although the setting and period of the book is suggested through the clothes, objects, modes of transport and landscape, it is not specified in the text, making this a universal story that readers all over the world will recognise. People emigrate for all sorts of different reasons, a topic that can be explored in conversation whilst reading the book to a child, as well as exploring the notion of hiraeth or feeling homesick.
Our thanks to publisher Y Lolfa for their permission to use images from the book