What is Thistle Downe? Well, it’s a charming miniature twig house, an inspiring and entertaining book about trolls and fairies—and for its creators, Molly and Gary Whitney, it’s a state of mind. The Whitneys built the little house from twigs gathered in Houston’s Hermann Park. Gary had constructed one room of it years before, when his children were small, as a playhouse for a set of wild-haired trolls they had been given. As happens, the children grew up, and after a stint as a holiday decoration, the house was finally given to a school librarian friend for display.
When Molly and Gary married four years ago, the house came back to them. Molly was entranced and asked that the twig house be enlarged and remain on display year around. The couple added lights, facades, hand-built furniture, stained glass windows, wrought iron gates, flower baskets and flower boxes. The trolls gave way to fairies, and the magical house eventually covered the table on which the construction began.
Gary, an architect and interior designer, let the twigs dictate the house’s whimsical exterior shape. Molly, a watercolorist, painstakingly painted flagstone terraces and family portraits for the living room. They used pinecones, hairpins and gravel as other building materials to complete their project, which came to include 36 exquisite fairies modeled after watercolor Flower Fairies by British artist Cicely Mary Barker.
As they built, friends continually asked them why they were doing it. They had no ready explanation, so Molly finally described it as “something that happened when two right brains got together with no supervision.”
Another frequent question was: “What’s the story behind this?” prompting the beginnings of a story to form in their minds. Gary requested that trolls be involved, an homage to the twig house’s original purpose. The hero of the evolving tale became Tyson, a red-haired troll brought up in a cave on Scotland’s Orkney Islands in the mid-1800s by a father too damaged by the death of his wife in childbirth to love the child. Left alone at age 15, Tyson set out to find a place for himself in the world. In his search for a happy life, he was confronted with many obstacles—loss, illiteracy, prejudice, bullying, poor self-esteem and forgiveness.
As the Whitneys wrote, characters began to appear in their dreams and make their way onto the pages: Gareth, Tyson’s ill-tempered, tragically damaged father; the Higbees, jovial owners of The Snooty Goose Pub, who give Tyson his first job and help him enroll in school; Miss MacNamara, the dedicated and caring school teacher with a little magic up her sleeve; Amelia, the lovely fairy blessed with the ability to look past physical appearances and straight into the hearts of those she encounters; Lord Fleming, Amelia’s prejudiced and opinionated father, who is determined to keep Tyson and Amelia apart, and his wife, who is torn between respect for her husband and love for her only child.
Lord Fleming is also owner of an exquisite silver carriage, which is in reality a time machine charged by a double-pointed crystal. The house and the story have become so intertwined that the Whitneys built a carriage house with room for a crystal to be suspended in its steeple. Gary built an exquisite silver carriage upholstered in pale blue velvet for Lord Fleming and a library for Tyson, who by then had learned to read.
The Whitneys nurtured and catered to the characters, who have become as dear to them as family, and they were caught up in the story as it continued to reveal itself to them. Exchanges between the authors and their characters are commonplace and at the same time magical.
Tyson, as you remember, was raised in a cave but dreams of living in a house above ground where he can see sun and mist, sky and ocean. In his quest for happiness, the vision of that house sustains him when he grows weary. When Amelia touches Tyson’s arm with her delicate hand “as light as thistledown” he knows what he will name his home. The name came to Molly in a dream, no doubt sent to her by the red-haired troll.
Molly had visited Orkney, a group of 70 islands located off the northeast coast of Scotland, a number of years ago retracing the footsteps of her great-great-great grandmother, Amelia, who had immigrated to America from there. The lovely, windswept topography, the towering cliffs, the mysterious prehistoric sites, the flora and fauna and the friendly, welcoming ways of the Orcadians enchanted her. She also became a devotee of Sticky Toffee Pudding, a dense date cake soaked with warm toffee—a most delicious dessert celebrated in the British Isles. It plays a pivotal role in Tyson’s life and in the story. The recipe is included in the book.
bairn – baby
crockery – dishes made of baked clay
cottage – small, simple house
Da – father
farrier – a craftsman who shoes horses
fosser – grave digger
ginger – slang for a red-haired person
Hogmanay – Scottish New Year’s Eve celebration
kippers – salted, smoked fish
lapwing – medium sized wading bird
livery – stable that boards or rents horses
Orcadian – resident of one of the Orkney Islands
Ostrefest – music and arts festival
primer –elementary reading book
pub – a place to gather for food or drink
stovies – a hearty beef stew
These are words you might hear in the Orkney Islands. Only 20 of them are occupied, so many people wonder if trolls and fairies may still be living there.
Authors: Gary and Molly Whitney
Hard Cover: $22.95,
5” x 8”
Order at: www.brightskypress.com or thistledownebook.com.
The Whitneys are delighted to make presentations to book clubs, libraries and classrooms and will bring a part of the real Thistle Downe twig house to share.
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