THE JOURNEYING BOY: Scenes From a Welsh Childhood. By Jon Manchip White. Atlantic Monthly Press. 318 pages. $21.95. JON MANCHIP WHITE has written nearly 30 books of fiction, history, travel and biography, so I expected this to be a first-rate work, especially since it is about my native land. I was born in Wales just four years before Mr. White and less than 10 miles from his home in Cardiff, the capital.
Mr. White has written a highly personal book in which he reveals his religious views, which are mystical and idiosyncratic and considerably different from those expressed in contemporary organized religions. He is unqualifiedly critical of the Labor Party's leaders and politics. These views are rather typical of those of affluent Cardiff families such as his, but they are at odds with those expressed over the years just a few miles away in the coal-mining valleys.
This is an extremely self-indulgent and confused book. There is no structure or central theme. The author's ostensible purpose is to contrast his childhood with the Wales he visits after having been away for 20 years. But Mr. White rarely adheres to this goal.
The book is divided into eight "parts," each indicated by a page in which the first paragraph begins with a large capital letter. There are no chapter titles. Chapters aren't numbered. They vary in length from 19 to 94 pages. It's impossible to determine whether the author succeeds in carrying out his purpose when he seems to have no purpose. If this were Mr. White's first book, it might never have been published.
Wales has about 3 million people in an area of close to 8,000 square miles, about the size and shape of New Jersey. We read next to nothing about this small country's 614 miles of beautiful coastline and the surprisingly delightful differences in scenery and way of life as one moves from metropolitan Cardiff into the coal valleys, then southwest along the coast and north through the hilly, rough mid-country to the mountainous, heavily castled, Welsh-speaking North Wales.
Because I was disappointed in the book does not mean all readers will be. Most readers will learn things about Wales and the Welsh that they had not known before. They will get some fascinating insights into the Welsh "character": the passionate love of poetry, the love of singing, the loquaciousness, the egalitarian spirit and the hospitable nature. Mr. White also bares some of the darker side of Welsh character.
Mr. White's most organized moments are when he traces Welsh history from a time before 1000 B.C. through the Roman occupation, through the period when magnificent Welsh kingdoms and their royal courts flourished, through the wars with the Normans and the Saxons until Wales is finally made subservient to the English in the middle 1500s.
He makes a convincing argument that the Welsh language, which has persisted, has helped the Welsh retain a strong sense of nationhood.
David Trevor Lewis is a retired sociology professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He lives in Baltimore.