RANALD BANNERMAN'S BOYHOOD is a bitter-sweet coming of age story, based in large part on George MacDonald's own early life. In the opening line of the book the narrator states that his goal is to recount the story of his boyhood up until the moment that he left childish things behind. He states, "I do not intend to carry my story one month beyond the hour when I saw that my boyhood was gone and my youth arrived; a period determined to some by the first tail-coat, to me by a different sign." What that sign was, is revealed at the end of the book.
This is the story of a boy growing up in rural Scotland during the early 1800s from his early childhood until the exact moment when he realizes that he is no longer a boy. We follow Ranald through boyish adventures amidst the Scottish countryside, with his friends, including a cow herd nicknamed "Turkey" who works on Ranald's father's farm. The two friends become rivals for the affections of a beautiful girl named Elsie Duff, but although both boys are in love with her, Ranald is a bit of a snob to her, as he is destined for university. He eventually leaves both Elsie and Turkey behind as he goes away to pursue his studies. Ranald, now living in the big city, considers himself a man, but learns unexpectedly that he has not yet earned that title.
One day, the grown up Ranald comes back home, and is shocked to learn of the unexpected death of Elsie. He begins to sob, for his lost love and at the guilt at the way he had treated Elsie. Ranald's father and his friends are unaware of Ranald's true feelings for Elsie, and he if left bereft. Needing someone to talk to Ranald seeks out Turkey, whom he knows will understand his sense of loss. He finds Turkey working in the barn. Turkey quietly tells Ranald that he and Elsie were going to be married next year. Ranald is surprised and suddenly humbled. He realizes that:
"Before the grief of the man, mighty in its silence, my whole being was humbled. I knew my love was not so great as his. It grew in my eyes a pale and feeble thing; and I felt worthless in the presence of her dead, whom alive I had loved with peaceful gladness. Elsie belonged to Turkey, and he had lost her, and his heart was breaking. I threw my arms round him, and wept for him, not for myself. It was thus I ceased to be a boy."
Ranald becomes a man when he is able to feel compassion for Turkey and to set aside his selfish rivalry.
The story ends with Ranald returning to university and Turkey leaving the farm and enlisting in the army. An epilogue tells us that Turkey, whose real name is never revealed, has now become a famous general.
Although Ranald Bannerman does not rise to the same artistic heights as Lilith or Phantasts, it beautifully captures a sweet and innocent type of childhood which has been lost in today's modern world. It is a life lived on a small scale in a simple rural environment, where family connections matter. A contemporary reviewer described MacDonald's book as "full of sweetness, full of boy-life and true goodness". (New York Independent, 1871) In my view, Ranald Bannerman's Boyhood deserves to be better known, as does George MacDonald for that matter.