Swedish author Astrid Lindgren is well-known in the English-speaking world, and to some extent also Tove Jansson (author of the Moomin books). Almost unknown here is the author Gunnel Linde, who published 40-odd children’s books in Swedish. Only a few of her books have been translated into English, and even fewer were translated during my time-frame (up to 1975), which would allow them to influence the flow of English-language children’s literature during that period. One of those few is The White Stone.
Two children in a small village, Fia and Hampus, strike up a strange friendship in which they form an unspoken pact of playing a game of fantasy, and pretending(?) to believe each others’ stories. He is Prince Perilous and she is an enchanted maiden named Fideli. They set each other difficult tasks to perform, in order to earn from each other the white stone that they pass back and forth, during the last week of summer.
The story is full of oddities that would be workshopped out of a book today. Prince Perilous’s first task is to paint the clock face on the church tower. This episode has a meandering, dreamlike quality, with Prince Perilous doing some directionless playing about — he tries the game of “running up” the church wall for a few steps before falling again (leaving footprints that lead the grownups of the village into mistaken theories) — before striking upon an idea of how to accomplish his task. Another episode that would have been workshopped out, to the book’s loss, is a brilliant extended display of a housekeeper’s passive-aggressive spitefulness against those she dislikes, which ends up backfiring and only getting herself in trouble.
In another episode, Fideli’s task is to gather treasure. She briefly considers pilfering real money, but instead she gathers things that are beautiful: a silver globe garden ornament, seashells, green glass pebbles, pieces from a broken stained-glass window, a glass marble, the gold knob from the top of a flag-pole. Adding to the strangeness, we are never told of Fideli’s decision not to take money or her reasons for that decision. We witness her considering taking money, and then we see her taking other things. But this is the moment when the children start to feel that their situation is becoming grave.
And this brings us to the most likely reason The White Stone is not better known in the U.S. Near the end of the book, when the two children can’t see a way out of their troubles (which only amounts to a risk of being caught for some mischief), they decide that they should die together, and they eat some mushrooms that they believe are poisonous. Fortunately the mushrooms are not, and this event fades into the background, just another passing piece of strangeness in the inner lives of children. The whole story is shot through with strangeness. It has the feel of an ill-fated medieval romance, while being firmly grounded in the antics of two absolutely ordinary children in an absolutely ordinary village.
In the end, when they are both in the first day of school and about to take up their regular lives lives under their regular names, they make another unaknowledged agreement. They will to pretend to pretend that they are ordinary children named Fia and Hampus. They will live their “real” lives to please all the regular people, but knowing that they are really Fideli and Prince Perilous.