As I understand it Julia Jones has been passionate about three things most of her life: horses, boats and books. It’s the latter two of this trilogy of passions which have lately combined in her authorship of The Strong Winds Trilogy. Julia owns Arthur Ransome’s boat Peter Duck and the trilogy is an homage to Ransome without at any time stepping on his toes. Not the most obvious of places to find mental health issues? Think again. Julia is a member of the Authors Electric online Community and a regular reviewer for IEBR
When I think of the three books of the Strong Winds trilogy I feel most protective – or perhaps defensive? – about the second volume, A Ravelled Flag. A Ravelled Flag begins the day after the night before. In the final chapter of The Salt-Stained Book Donny’s mother Skye is released from the mental hospital where she has spent almost the entirity of that story. She looks “terrible – pale, flabby and bewildered” and she doesn’t say much. That’s not surprising. Skye has been deaf from birth. She is also profoundly dyslexic. She can manage a few, formless sounds “Doh, Doh” for her beloved child but her main modes of communication are sign language and creative expression using touch and texture. Skye is shrewd, loving, observant, poetic – but we, the readers, don’t know that yet. All we know is that she’s Donny’s mum and the most important person in his life. Her unexpected return should feel like an unequivocally Good Thing. It’s the main element of the happy ending.
Salt-Stained Book readers will, I think, have disregarded the fact that Skye was taken to the mental health unit because she suffered an uncontrollable panic attack. Donny could do nothing to calm her at that moment of crisis and when she was mishandled she appeared likely to be violent. Skye is big and physically strong. I think if those readers had actually been there, stuck behind the camper van at the exit of the Colchester car park, they might possibly have been relieved to see Skye sedated, pushed into an ambulance and removed from the scene. We live with the comfortable assumption that our society takes good care of people like Skye. We pay our taxes and trust the professionals to do their job. That’s natural enough – except when the breakdown happens to somebody who is close to you. I’ve written a great deal about the extent to which the Strong Winds trilogy has its basis in the novels of Arthur Ransome and my childhood on board Peter Duck: I’ve said less about the unattractive events that shocked me into realising that our social care and health care systems are only as good as the people who are managing them and that every user / client / patient on the inside needs their friends, their relatives and their advocates to remain alert and involved on their behalf. A Ravelled Flag is the volume of the Strong Winds trilogy where these themes are most articulate. It includes an uncomfortable amount of direct observation of events I would wish not to have observed.
Skye’s multiple disabilties make her vulnerable. Much later (in volume three) Donny describes her as existing every day “like a flightless eagle on a ledge. Poised above chasms of panic and darkness.” In the context of the adventure story Donny’s enemies have spotted Skye’s vulnerability from book one but his friends still have no idea what this could mean. At the beginning of A Ravelled Flag Mr Ribiero tries to warn Donny that his mother’s rehabilitation will not be straightforward: “She’s been given a large quantity of medication and it’ll take some time for her body to readjust. We can expect physical symptoms as well as considerable disorientation. Possibly distress.” With a little skilled provocation from the Mal-fairy what they get is not distress but chaos – material damage, humiliating public spectacle and a urine-soaked skirt.. Donny’s teenage friends aren’t sure what to think. “They didn’t have any problem with the idea of disability and mental illness. It was the reality that was hard to deal with.”
I feel rather like that. Illness of any sort, mental or physical, isn’t pretty or convenient. Whether you’re the sufferer or the carer, illness takes away your freedom to choose. It stops you doing the things you’d planned. I’m lucky that so far in my life I’ve usually been healthy. Too healthy? It’s hard sometimes not to feel a fleeting spasm of irritation with the child who vomits all over the bedroom in the middle of the night and you know you’re the person who’ll be fighting to get the stink out of the carpet. But at least there’re be an end to it – or you’ll decide to cut out that section of carpet and tip dettol all over the floorboards. You still have a choice. If you’re close to someone with a chronic condition and you’re bound to them by love you may feel that your autonomy is gone for ever. In my limited experience mental illness feels peculiarly unpredictable. When Skye adds vulnerability to alcohol to her other vulnerabilities Donny and his great aunt find it almost impossible to know what will happen next. “This thing was so random. They didn’t get it at all.”
A Ravelled Flag is an adventure story, a treasure hunt, part of a larger narrative. It’s entertainment. Did I have to include alcoholism, mental illness, a little hint elsewhere of sexual grooming? “Some of its themes seem not entirely suitable for children” wrote one, otherwise kindly, reviewer. The big theme of the Strong Winds trilogy – the big theme of most (all?) adventure fiction – is the use and abuse of power. Thsi affects everyone. Skye is vulnerable. She’s disabled, she’s ill, she’s addicted. Is it an Orwellian lie to insist, as Donny does, that she’s also “different” and “special”?
The clue is in the flag. Gold Dragon’s house flag has been viciously slashed in an attempt at intimidation. For weeks Donny keeps this information to himself. What would be the point of telling his mother? A Ravelled Flag is about the re-building of family relationships. Once Skye learns what has happened she takes away the ripped and fraying fragments. Safe in her cabin on board Strong Winds she sets to work to press and feather-stitch each disintegrating piece. By the first day of spring she has woven them together into something new and strong. “Skye didn’t run her flag up the mast as her mother Eirene or anyone else would have done. She took the pole in both hands and waved it from side to side in great sweeping arcs so the black and gold silk rippled like a triumphal banner.” The youngest children are the first to understand what she has achieved “ ‘Ha, ha, ha!’ they shouted in defiance of everything gloomy and cruel. ‘HA, HA, HA!’ ”
Ha, ha, ha indeed.
Find out more about Julia Jones’ writing.
You can buy Strong Winds Trilogy as ebooks or paperbacks
A Ravelled Flag A Ravelled Flag is available on Kindle
Ghosting Home Ghosting Home is available in Kindle format