In Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk, fifteen-year-old Mary is a young farm girl who is content with her lot in life. It is not without difficulties (poverty and hard work, spiteful older sister, overbearing and rage-filled father), but she focuses on speaking her mind and concentrating on the best of her experiences (beautiful country side, her love for her ailing grandfather, and the truth she feels in her own nature). She doesn’t let anything get her down. Mary’s natural curiosity and zest for life may endear her to readers, but to her father, she’s expendable. When he has the opportunity to earn money from her labor, he sends her into town to live with the minister’s family as housemaid. Mary’s story is concerned with what happens to her while living there – in unfamiliar circumstances, and housed with the minister’s son – who has a roving eye and an unsavory reputation.
Mary’s story is not a happy one, but it is one that takes a turn that neither she or readers will quite be expecting. A smart girl, she has the opportunity to learn to read and write, and she takes it – no cost is too great for her to obtain that knowledge. The price, however, is very high. Many books have examined the extreme power dynamics existing between master and servant, but The Colour of Milk is told (written, actually) with the charm, personality and distinctiveness of this simple girl from the English countryside who has just learned to read and write, and struggles to master the language so she can tell her story. In every sentence Mary conveys the beauty she sees in life, her appreciation for its simplicity and her place within it. The power in Leyshon’s novel comes from the pride Mary takes in her accomplishment, and though her story is a short one, taking place over the course of a year, the sad, tension-filled narrative feels much longer. Highly Recommended.