Recommendation from: A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore
Several years ago, Frances of Nonsuch Books gave me this book as part of a Persephone Secret Santa exchange. She actually gave it to me in-person because we lived so near each other at the time. I am remiss for not reading this book sooner – I’m often distracted from the books I own by library books.
Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings covers several wartime years in the life of one middle-class English family: perceptive father, Alex; self-centered mother, Lena; and their four children: Laurel, Tony, Kim and Tuesday. The story begins as the family is on a beach vacation, on the eve of World War II. The family will soon be separated as the children are to be evacuated out of London, and stay with their paternal grandparents in the country.
All of the characters in Saplings – particularly the children – have distinct but not simplistic personalities. Besides the parents, the children are surrounded by a constellation of adults who range from caring but constrained former governess Ruth, to the children’s aunt Lindsey, who would rather not be bothered. Streatfeild writes with psychological depth, but the prose isn’t dense with it, thanks to the author’s good sense of pace. Streatfeild is like a judicious film editor with her narrative: scenes are well-chosen and do not drag on.
It is an enjoyable book, though not generally a happy one in its trajectory. In the constant background is the war, which takes away some of the adults from the children’s lives and doesn’t always return them. Still, it is a pleasure to read a book for adults that understands children’s nature so well. Streatfeild captures how adults can unthinkingly slight a child, and how that unintentional slight can grow and grow in the child’s mind. There are a couple poignant moments in the book that near about made me cry, when an adult finally is able to intuit the source of a child’s pain and heal it. The following excerpt did not make me cry, but it is thematically of a piece with those that did. The excerpt is set on the day that the eldest girl, Laurel, is departing for boarding school. At this point in the book, Ruth is still employed as a governess by the family.
It was not by design that Ruth was alone with Laurel. They had gone to the brook to wash. Laurel, in her green tunic and crested cardigan, looked unlike herself. She made Ruth’s heart ache and gave her courage to say what in recent days she had not risked in case Laurel snubbed her, and the bloom was brushed from their friendship.
‘Oh, Laurel, my pet, I am going to miss you.’
Laurel looked up from the water. There was a moment when it seemed that a snub was on her lips. Then she was up, her arms around Ruth’s neck, sobbing.
‘It was always my bedroom – even Tony never speaks to me, he’s always playing with Albert and Ernie – Gran’s glad I’m going to school, she doesn’t pretend she isn’t – everybody’s glad I’m being sent away – Dad promised we’d have a lot of riding, we haven’t ridden once – it’s extra awful me going to school, I’m ugly and I’m not good at anything – ‘
Ruth surreptitiously looked at her watch. It would do the child good to say all that was in her mind, but she could not plant her in a railway carriage filled with strange girls with her face swollen from crying. She gave Laurel a kiss.
‘Mop your face. I can’t hand you over to your housemistress, or whoever it is, looking as if you’d got mumps.’
I definitely recommend Saplings to anyone who likes books that depict children in credible, insightful ways, and who have soft spots for scenes where kindly grandfathers, uncles and headmistresses take the time to listen to the troubles of children.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Novel Insights – “She paints such clear characters, that a few days after finishing the book they are all still vivid in my mind. Although the book has a central story, I did feel that it was more of a sketch and I do think you need to sort of settle into it rather than being in a rush.”
Stuck in a Book – “Structure may not be [Streatfeild’s] trump card, but there is still a lot to love in the novel. Chief amongst these is the way in which she demonstrates the damage done to families and children by war.”
things mean a lot – “The Wiltshire children are sensitive, especially Laurel, and it is a mark of Noel Streatfeild’s great skill that their pains and concerns never seem silly, not even when played against the backdrop of the war.”