How does one start to hunt for plants? My own love of plants began with Cecily Mary Barker’s picture-and-verse Flower Fairy books, Yet the works are not pure fantasy: Barker’s charming fairies, first appearing in 1923, were based on drawings of real children in her sister’s kindergarten, while the detailed flowers and settings are painted with meticulous, botanically-accurate skill. The Flower Fairies taught me- and no doubt many others – to find and identify common plants, even though some of those flowers are rarer than they used to be.
However, Barker’s pretty fairies - still hovering around today – can surely only charm a very particular young audience. There’s space for bolder books about the history of the plants and stories for older boys and girls who would welcome tales of adventure.
I was very pleased to come across JACK FORTUNE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE HIDDEN VALLEY, a novel for 8-12 year olds, written by fellow History Girl Sue Purkiss.
Inspired by the lives of 18th century plant-hunters, Sue has written a fast-moving historical adventure story. Jack Fortune, the young hero, is energetic and most interestingly naughty. Bored, and not allowed to attend school, he can’t resist devising tricks that shame his stern widowed Aunt Constance and horrify her genteel guests.
As a character, Jack is immediately likeable - and trouble! When he accidentally damages a priceless object, Constance summons her brother, Uncle Edmund, insisting that he take responsibility for his young nephew.
Uncle Edmund refuses; not only is the scholarly bachelor unused to children but he is about to depart on his first plant-hunting trip to India. Jack, hearing this exciting news, wants to accompany the expedition so Uncle Edmund reluctantly agrees, while Aunt Constance, unable to face any more disobedience, agrees despite the dangers.
From this point on Jack and his uncle – and the reader – experience a new life full of challenge and interesting people and places. They sail to Calcutta, cross the Great Plain and travel through the jungle before reaching a high mountain kingdom with a hidden valley. All the way, Jack and his uncle face setbacks and dangers: vagabonds, wild animals, “mountain sickness” and, at last, reports of a huge, legendary being who brings death to any intruders in the Hidden Valley. Moreover, Jack soon realises that an unknown traitor is spoiling the expedition’s food supplies and stirring up problems with local villagers. Who wishes them ill? Is it Sonam, their guide or Thondup, the heir to the throne who accompanies the party, and whom Jack has begun to admire?
Sue Purkiss’s plot moves along with plenty of pace and action and just enough description to fix the story in its historical time and place without overloading her young reader’s enjoyment. She also touches lightly and skillfully on darker issues such as servants and colonisation, but lets the bold adventure end as happily as it should.
However, I felt the book was about more than the plant-hunting quest: Jack and Uncle Edmund make a wonderfully odd and warm partnership, and the hardships met on the expedition teach them more about the other.
Bookish Uncle Edmund slowly reveals his bravely determined nature and his passion for plant-hunting. Gradually, Jack sees the burning passion that lies behind Uncle Edmund’s search, and his desperate hope that the plant will bring him fame, fortune and the approval of the influential Sir Joseph Banks when - and if - they ever return to London.
Meanwhile, faced with real demands and responsibilities rather than endless tea-parties and polite manners, Jack becomes the boy-hero he was meant to be and is even able to accept his own inherited artistic gifts and inheritance.
One of the particular reasons I enjoyed JACK FORTUNE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE HIDDEN VALLEY was that, despite the difficulties Jack and his Uncle face, the adventure is a positive and hopeful experience and one that might encourage children to look beyond everyday life and issues in school and out into a much wider world with all its interweaving histories.
ps. Years after the Flower Fairies, my gardening interests led to a set of children’s stories based on the history of British gardening, written for re-telling at RHS Harlow Carr gardens.
NB. Alma Books have also created some downloadable activities to support of this title: http://almabooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Jack-Fortune-Activity-Book.pdf as well as an interview with the author Sue Purkiss: http://almabooks.com/interview-sue-purkiss-author-jack-fortune/