New Welsh Review

The Green Indian Problem, The Blue Book of Nebo

Jade Leaf Willetts, Manon Steffan Ros (respectively)

Tim Cooke admires two novels that make innovative use of epistolary forms written from the point of view of children, both firmly rooted in their Welsh locations and exploring themes of identity, change and the mother–child relationship

PUBLISHED ON: 28/06/22


TAGS: 1980s, child viewpoint, conflicted identity, dystopia, emotional health, epistolary, grief, historical, mother-child relationship, novel, parenting, post-apocalypse, translation

PUBLISHER: Renard Press, Firefly (respectively)

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Writing in the first person from a child’s perspective is fraught with difficulty. Achieving an authentic language, delivering realistic insights and presenting a view of the world that readers can believe and connect with gives rise to a clutter of stumbling blocks – not least the application of an overly sentimental or precocious tone. When done well, the work can be extraordinarily affective, transporting us back to periods of the most intense feeling and rapid change many of us will ever experience.

Two books from Wales this year, Manon Steffan Ros’ The Blue Book of Nebo, translated by the author from the 2018 Welsh-language original – and Jade Leaf Willetts’ The Green Indian Problem take on the challenge and make innovative use of epistolary forms written from the point of view of children, albeit at different stages of childhood. These are not the only points of crossover. Both narratives are firmly rooted in their geographies – the former on the edge of the titular north Wales town, the latter deep in the south Wales valleys – and both take us out of the present day to explore issues very much of the current moment: one skips forward to a near and difficult future, while the other reaches back to the final years of Thatcher’s Britain.

Cover of The Green Indian Problem by Jade Leaf Willetts
Cover of The Green Indian Problem by Jade Leaf Willetts, published by Renard Press.


Starting in 1989 and moving through into the next decade, The Green Indian Problem introduces Green, an intelligent seven-year-old boy whose young life is complicated by a conflict he simply cannot understand: everyone but him thinks he’s a girl. Told by his teacher that ‘writing things down helps to work out problems’, he decides to wrestle with his ‘mystery’ in a workbook, scribbling down a series of freewheeling reflections on aspects of his immediate experience, pulling in the wider political context almost inadvertently as he goes. Much of the material is drawn from his relationships with those around him, particularly his parents – who live apart – his grandparents and his best friend, Michael.

Through Green’s father, we glimpse the effects of the pit closures and the decline of heavy industry. During interactions with his grandmother, we watch him grapple with questions of faith and religion in a changing world, evoking especially potent memories for me from my own childhood. The most complex and rewarding of Green’s relationships, though, is with his mother, Linda, with whom the identity theme is richly explored. Confident with who he is and bravely kicking out against the oppression of a largely intolerant society, Green’s biggest challenge seems to be convincing others to let him be himself. His mother’s acceptance is pivotal to this, but her own life is anything but straightforward – domestic violence and mental health are present.

In between all this, we’re reminded of the simple beauty of early days spent outside, roaming the local environment. Willetts expertly recalls the magic of night-time football, riding your bike with no hands for the first time and the torment of hearing your friends at play on the street while you’re in bed. There are some excellent sensory descriptions of mood and atmosphere through simple references to colouring in. Just as you begin to wonder if the book can continue in this way, something terrible happens and a neat narrative shift takes place, sweeping you on a dark wave through to an exhilarating end. It’s almost like Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 in reverse, where something catastrophic sustains an otherwise fairly non-narrative collage of a specific place in time.

Of course, assuming such a young perspective means the links to some of the more distant issues explored have to play out convincingly around the narrator, which, for the most part, they do. Occasionally, however, Green’s insights can appear a touch too quick and incisive for me, but this takes little away from what is a warm, humorous and often moving portrayal of a strong central character dealing with early grief and facing down significant adversity.

In The Blue Book of Nebo, Dylan, also disarmingly eloquent and intuitive for his age, is writing at fourteen. His words are balanced against those of his mother, Rowenna, who contributes, too, to their shared journal, fleshing out the history and providing some of the narrative control necessary, given the novel’s premise: the boy commits to writing about how life is now, while his mother is to be concerned with ‘the olden days and The End’. It’s not a system they are particularly rigid with, but it forms the basis of their approach, and they agree not to read one another’s entries.

In 2018, when Dylan was six, bombs were dropped on some of America’s biggest cities. Rowenna left work immediately, rented a transit van and filled it with all the provisions she could think of, including polytunnels, whole boxes of seed packets, two apple trees and as many pain killers as she was allowed to buy – in case she wanted to kill herself. She stacked it all in the garage of the home she shared with her son, then went inside to print reams of information on self-sufficiency from the internet. A few days later, the power went. Soon after that, the vast majority of the town’s population disappeared, and then the cloud came.

It’s not exactly clear what has happened, but all indications point towards nuclear disaster of some form – their lean-to gives good views of Anglesey, with its Wylfa power station on the far side (Rowenna hates its name, which she translates as ‘beacon, or look-out point’, referring to it as the ugliest, cruellest word). It all feels very pertinent and, in the detail, entirely realistic. Tracking the process of the family adapting to their new existence is fascinating. From the highs and lows of their enforced reconnection with the land, to the dynamics of this intensely close mother–son relationship, the novel feels impeccably researched and is, at times, deeply affecting.

Just as in The Green Indian Problem, there is sustenance to be found in the absence of modern technology. Dylan is thinner than he should be, more muscular, extremely well read and, according to his mother, flourishing in the drastic simplification of a world that once disappointed him. It reads, in parts, like a Froebel manual for good child development, if lacking a few vital components. He is, of course, a frustrated figure, struggling in ways with his own identity, unable to explore himself properly beyond his role in the family. There’s a particularly memorable section in which he develops a crush on a girl he sees in a photograph, whose bedroom he likes to return to. It’s a sad sequence, emphasising the need for various channels of communication during those transformative adolescent years.

Like Willetts’ protagonist, Dylan is significantly impacted by his mother’s fluctuating state. She can be hard and cold, cruel even on occasions. Such tendencies raise questions about how far we should trust her assertion that despite The End – the complete collapse of society, with everything she knew in pieces – she was never so satisfied. Something about her almost misanthropic position doesn’t sit comfortably. Although there are clear and believable positives in their new way of living, the extent of her professed optimism at times strikes me as more a necessary feature of endurance than anything else; or maybe life before the apocalypse was, for her, simply too miserable, which is pretty bleak.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Blue Book of Nebo is the characters’ relationships with the Welsh language. In the early stages of The End, Rowenna instinctively salvages a stack of Welsh literature – perhaps saving the language itself – from the local library. Despite describing them as ‘like an old enemy’, she reads the books to Dylan, who, when he is able to, consumes them voraciously himself. Through literature, he forges a connection with his local landscape, to history and a cultural heritage that his mother had missed out on due to the influence of American bands, television and – possibly – traumas deeply rooted in her childhood. It’s rewarding watching as she, too, gradually reconnects, the Welsh names for flowers blooming on her tongue.

There is so much to admire in Ros’ work, but it’s the full, utterly convincing characterisation that is most impressive. Following the family through their triumphs of pragmatism, peering in as they interpret and voice their sadness, grief, hope and love, is a rich experience. Like The Green Indian Problem, it’s a relatively short book told in a simple language, at its best in the small, beautifully drawn details that shape a childhood. As Dylan writes, ‘That’s how people live forever, I think, in the little memories in familiar places.’


Tim Cooke won the New Welsh Writing Awards 2022 Rheidol Prize for Prose with a Welsh Theme or Setting, judged by Gwen Davies in April, for his entry ‘Rivers’, which will be developed into an essay collection published on our New Welsh Rarebyte imprint.