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Originally published Sunday, March 17, 2013 at 5:41 AM

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‘The Colour of Milk’: the price of learning to read

In “The Colour of Milk,” British novelist Nell Leyshon tells what happens when a 19th-century English farm girl is taught reading and writing by the local vicar.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘The Colour of Milk’

by Nell Leyshon

Ecco, 172 pp., $21.99

“my name is mary and i have learned to spell it. m.a.r.y. that is how you letter it.”

With these lines, British novelist and dramatist Nell Leyshon introduces us to the newly literate 14-year-old farm girl who narrates her taut, moving novel set in 1830s rural England. Mary’s delivery, simple and direct, describes a mean life on the family farm and how her father beats her for her insolence.

“i knew i had dreams but i didn’t know what they were,” Mary recalls.

No matter. It’s her disobedience, not her dreams, that set the girl’s fate. Brooking no more of her back talk, her father rents Mary to the local vicar to care for his ailing wife. That’s where she encounters books and written language for the first time.

The vicar, observing Mary’s curiosity, offers to teach her to read and write. But such learning comes at a cost that will determine the course of the story.

Mary could have stepped out of the pages of a Thomas Hardy novel: Like his Tess, she has the spunk and intelligence that make you believe she’ll catch a break. But it’s not easy to escape such humble beginnings. As the novel shows, poverty’s grip involves not just a lack of material things but also the impoverishment of ideas.

Through Mary’s voice, Leyshon underscores this stark reality and the price of powerlessness while giving the novel a modern-day sensibility.

“my name is mary. m.a.r.y.,” the girl keeps reminding us. “my hair is the colour of milk.”

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