At the Back of the North Wind, George MacDonald. New York: Open Road Media, 2022.
Summary: Diamond becomes friend with the North Wind, who takes him on many adventures, even while he is a help to everyone he meets and known for his rhymes.
Diamond is a young boy, who is described as having “a tile loose,” and yet is so pleasant and helpful and even precocious that he is a delight to his parents and all those his life touches. His first bedroom is in a barn above the stable of “Old” Diamond, the faithful horse his father drives, first as a livery man and later as a cabbie. The wall behind his head has a hole in it that he and his mother both try to plug until he learns that in so doing he is plugging one of the windows of the North Wind. Diamond befriends her and goes on a number of night adventures. In one, he helps a little girl, Nanny, a street sweeper. Most of the adventures with North Wind are delightful but not all. On one, North Wind is a great storm that swamps a ship, with the loss of all but a handful aboard. At another point, he learns of the land at “the back of the North Wind,” and in a time when he is very ill, he is permitted to go there, a place North Wind herself has not gone, by passing through North Wind into a paradise-like place.
On his return, a crisis had passed in his illness, and a turning point occurred in his life, much like that of many who report near-death experiences. He has an uncanny capacity to create rhymes that soothe the baby in his home and improvise on nursery rhymes. By now his father is driving cab and he learns to handle Diamond, and takes his father’s place during illness. There is a period where he rarely encounters North Wind. But he helps Nanny who has taken sick, seeking the help of Mr. Raymond, a philanthropist, who had been a fare and was taken with the boy. While she was in the hospital, she has dreams of going to the Moon, which she tells Diamond, making him wonder if his own adventures with North Wind were real or also just dreams–or can dreams be real?
I won’t reveal the ending except to suggest that I believe Diamond discovers the answer to his questions, which remind one of the questions one might have about the life of faith. And what of the North Wind? We have both a beautiful woman who creates a nest for Diamond in her hair or holds him to her bosom, but is also a fierce power sending a ship full of people to their deaths. Is North Wind a kind of angel of death (very different than typically portrayed)? Diamond is given up for dead at the time he goes “back of the North Wind.” Death hovers over this story, as it did over life in this period where children often died young, a pregnancy could end in death, or an illness strike down a hearty man, as it nearly does Diamond’s father. There is at once an inscrutable character about death but also the assurances of One who will be near us in our dying, even a friend of the dying.
Most of us do not have near death experiences from which we return. MacDonald doesn’t shy away from this reality. In Diamond, we have one whose life is transformed by dying, “as one who has been back of the North Wind.” And the story suggests to me that when we face death’s realities and our hope for what is beyond, we also may be changed. Stern stuff for young readers in our day, but in MacDonald’s time, children became acquainted early with death and needed stories to help them live in light of its reality. As do we.