No matter what period you're living in, who doesn't, on occasion, like to block out the news and escape to a different time and place? Nothing can provide this better than reading, and it's remarkable how effective memoirs from the past can accomplish this. A memoir I love, and which I've read a couple of times, is Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson. Published in 1918, when Hudson was living in England and 77 years old, the book describes the author's years growing up on a different continent. Among other things, it's a book that now comes across as unusual because - get this - it's actually about what used to be called a happy childhood.
Of course family trauma and the abuse of children have existed since the beginning of time, so the fact that Hudson experienced neither is not because he lived in the past. He happened to be fortunate. His childhood was a particularly rich and interesting one spent with loving parents but few restrictions on the wild stretches of the Argentinian pampas in the 1840s and 50s. His Anglo-American parents had settled as immigrants in Argentina and that's where he was born. Though his father's attempt to make a living were struggles (he had to give up sheep farming and a grocery store he opened later also failed), Hudson loved where he grew up. The house was full of books, and the only formal education he got was from traveling schoolteachers and tutors who would turn up sometimes at the house and stay for awhile. After catching rheumatic fever from being out in a hailstorm while herding cattle, the pre-teen Hudson was given the freedom of an invalid, though, in fact, he was hardly that. This meant little was expected of him and he didn't have much parental supervision. To his heart's content, he could wander alone out on the plains, ride horses, and study the animals, birds and plant life of the region. He was also a close observer of the people in the area--this a time when real gauchos were out and about and Argentina was chock full of eccentric immigrants and untamed characters. Hudson himself says he could hardly have asked for a freer childhood, and there's no doubt that those impressionable years studying nature helped turn him into one of the world's great nature writers and naturalists, something he became as an adult when he moved to England and settled there. In England, Hudson would also become a charter member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Hudson wrote Far Away and Long Ago when the world he was describing had already pretty much vanished. He had not been back to Argentina for over 40 years. The book has a poignant tone that is really moving yet not without humor, and the descriptions of the landscape, the wind, the sun, the flora, the animals are vivid and precise and lyrical. As a number of people have commented, from Jorge Luis Borges to Joseph Conrad to Virginia Woolf, Hudson ranks among the very greatest stylists of English prose; his sentences flow with an effortless ease and clarity. I was taken away to a totally different time and place when I read this book, and when I'd leave my room after some reading, I felt as if there was nothing I wanted to do more than go back to the mid-eighteen hundreds, as a child, and take a walk through the Argentinian pampas. I happen to like reading memoirs very much, and Far Away and Long Ago is the one that would get my vote for my all time favorite. It a great memoir to sink into, an enriching read during any period, even - yes - the one we are living through.