In today’s world where Twitter message are considered meaningful communications, is it possible that many people are reading the likes of British author OLIVER ONIONS? I doubt it.
This novel, Mushroom Town, is like the ultimate “Anti-Twitter Experience.” Lengthy; heavily descriptive; loaded with deeply developed metaphors, zillions of digressions for allusions and observations; in-depth character development – you know – great literature.
Published in 1914, Mushroom Town reveals a powerful writer at the height of his skills. Mr. Onions published more than 40 novels. Oh, by the way, certainly “Oliver Onions” must be a pen name, right?
No! It’s his real name – George Oliver Onions. Interestingly, he later legally changed his name to George Oliver in 1918 (gee, I wonder why), as which point his real name became his pen name.
The setting of Mushroom Town is the tiny fictional hamlet Llanyglo, Wales. The time is the early 1880s. Llanyglo is little more than a few merchant shops, three tiny churches and some scattered dry-scrabble farms. But the tiny town has an ideal location next to the ocean, and potentially a terrific beach for water recreation of all kinds.
Llanyglo catches the attention of Edward Garden, a shrewd, well-to-do English businessman. He initially brings his family to spend two weeks in a seaside cabin to bolster the failing health of his 9-year-old daughter.
However, Mr. Garden knows a secret about Llanyglo – he has inside information about a new rail line that will soon be laid down and pass very near the hamlet – which means that, for the first time, this once remote, inconsequential region will suddenly have easy two-way access to the bigger cities of England, such as Manchester and Liverpool.
Mr. Garden recognizes the potential to transform tiny Llanyglo into a resort town – it’s an ideal, peaceful and lovely get-away by the sea for the bone-weary residents of England’s grimy, coal-dusted cities of the north. Thus the title, Mushroom Town.
So little Llanyglo “mushrooms” in just a decade from a sleepy backwater town to an energized, thriving, crowded tourist destination with gigantic new hotels, tourist shops, a Ferris wheel, lamp-lighted pavilions, a magnificent boardwalk pier that thrusts out into the ocean, and which is bordered by fancy restaurants.
Against this backdrop is played out a clash of cultures – the backwards, kind, rural and simple people of rural Wales are confronted with shocking quickness the invasion of the Saxon English who bring their big money, big-city ways and big demands to Llanyglo.
Although I said character development is strong, there really is no viewpoint character in Mushroom Town. The hamlet of Llanyglo itself and its culture are the primary characters. The tumultuous events surrounding the urban transformation of the town are what drives the narrative.
Should You Read It?
I have always said that those who want to find a powerful experience through literature must give as much as they receive from a significant piece of writing. Certainly, a book such as this one will try the patience of modern readers – but you have to remember that long, plodding paragraphs and whole chapter filled with description and no action was the style for late 19th and early 20th Century writers.
However, if you settle in and read slowly and patiently, Mushroom Town will seep into your bones and vividly transport you to late 1800s Wales – it may be the next best thing to actually stepping into a time machine and going there for real. You’ll experience a simpler times in a blissful rural, mountainous region next to a sparkling ocean – a time before hyper-capitalism, crass commercialism and shallow tourism despoiled something once natural, earthy and beautiful.
The last segment of the book affected me deeply. In the final 100 pages, or so, Mr. Onions paints for us a powerfully tragic love story between a wealthy young Englishman and a penniless Welsh gypsy woman – two people from entirely different worlds, cultures and classes – whose different circumstances will almost certainly doom their love – or will it?
The love story between a wealthy Brit and a gypsy (the latter at the bottom of the caste even among the Welsh as compared to the English of those times) serves as an amazing metaphor which captures the plight of Llanyglo not as a mere phenomenon of sociology, but as an event with implications for the very soul of humanity itself.
People, have no doubt: Oliver Onions was a major literary talent. His work deserves as much readership today as do some of his contemporaries, such as E.M. Forester, Thomas Hardy and W. Somerset Maugham.
Ken Korczak is the author of: THE FAIRY REDEMPTION OF JUBAL CRANCH