Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart


published 1965



Airs Above the Ground 2



[Vanessa and Tim are travelling in Austria, trying to track down a circus]

The first thing I saw, as we ran into the village of Oberhausen, was a [circus] poster wrapped round a tree-trunk. The second was the circus itself in a field to the right of the road, a motley collection of tents, wagons and caravans, grouped in an orderly confusion round the big top…

[Narrator Vanessa catches sight of a young woman] This was the girl I had seen on the news reel. Moreover, in the flesh, and in the bright light of day, she was prettier even than I Airs Above the Ground 1remembered. She was of small to medium height, with a slender curved young figure, and fair hair tied neatly back in a pony tail. … she was charmingly dressed now in the traditional white blouse, flowered dirndl and apron. She looked about eighteen.




observations: Margot Kinberg (at her marvellous Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog) recently did a post on people who live a travelling lifestyle. A couple of her examples came from circus people, which reminded me of this book.

Mary Stewart wrote rather good thrillers (from the 1950s through to the 1990s) about independent young women falling into dramatic adventures, usually in an exotic location. In this one, Vanessa seems to have mislaid her husband Lewis, and is travelling with the teenaged Tim, son of a friend. They get tied up with a travelling circus, and there is obviously some kind of secret business going on regarding the husband, and there is a connection with the Lipizzaner horses of Vienna. So plenty of excellent plotlines. Vanessa is a vet, so good with the horses – Stewart’s heroines might seem romantic, but they usually have careers and take their own lives and dreams seriously. It is true they are always going to end up with a nice man, but my contention was always that they are a lot more feminist than they might appear at first glance. This is what I said in an earlier entry on Stewart:
[her heroines] didn’t need a man to rescue or protect them, and they certainly made me think that a woman’s 20s might be a great time for travel, work and a nice flat. This was by no means the impression you would get from many adult novels of the time.
In this one Vanessa has sex with her husband, which surprised me – it isn’t described, but it is plain that that is what happened: ‘you’d better get your clothes on again’.

There is a lot of entertaining and informative detail about circuses and about the training of horses in particular – there’s a heart-stopping moment where an old horse, out to grass, hears music in the distance and starts to perform his old routines. ‘Airs Above the Ground’ – what a fabulous title – describes certain manoeuvres that the most well-trained horses can perform.

Stewart also wrote the wonderful Crystal Cave, about Merlin and King Arthur. I like the adventure books, but Crystal Cave is on a higher plane altogether, it would be one of my Desert Island books.

The circus poster is from the Library of Congress. The fraulein in the dirndl is from the Bundesarchiv:
"Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-F054585-0011, Bonn, Abschiedsempfang Landesvertretung Bayern" by Wegmann, Ludwig / CC-BY-SA. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Wikimedia Commons.








12 comments:

  1. Thank you, Moira, for the kind mention. And I'm glad you mentioned a Mary Stewart book; she did write some good suspense novels. I remember liking them when I was younger. It's interesting about her protagonists, too. As you say, most of them are intelligent and capable - certainly not the 'shrinking violets' in need of rescue that you see in some other such suspense novels. And the circus setting here is intriguing...

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    1. I'm still hoping you might do a whole entry devoted to circuses Margot - I think it's a topic that intrigues us both.

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  2. Moira, it's nice to see a Mary Stewart novel being reviewed, not because I read any of them but because there were a few lying around the place. I recall liking the covers of early editions of her books. There is an old charm to authors like Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer.

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    1. She was a big bestseller in her day - I wonder if people still read her? I love your description of her old charm, that's it exactly.

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  3. I had no idea that Mary Stewart wrote into the 90s. I should try some of her books. I know I have read some, and I don't know if I have read The Crystal Cave. (I am sure this is an echo of previous comments of mine on this author.)

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    1. They are definitely worth a try, Tracy, and if you have any interest in Arthurian history then Crystal Cave is a must-read.

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  4. I love Mary Stewart - both the thrillers (which are excellent - have you tried My Brother Michael?), and the Arthurian novels. I have very fond memories of her children's books that I first read as a child The Little Broomstick and Ludo and the Star Horse.

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    1. Gosh, I don't think I even knew she'd written children's books, I'm sorry I missed out on them....

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  5. That moment when the horse dances was incredibly moving - I'm always convinced that animal are going to die when they star in books, so I was already totally on edge when that scene came up.

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    1. I know, I was enjoying it as a re-read, but that moment totally took it to another level. It reminded me of Crystal Cave, which has several moments that can still make the hair stand up on my neck.

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  6. I think I can safely pass on this one, Moira.

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