Sunday, November 1, 2009

Saplings (part 2)

Moving on...I’ve had ‘Saplings’ on the shelf for a few months (the very attractive Persephone Classics edition – I think I like these even more than the original grey jackets), and post flu was looking for some easy reading. What I really wanted was something like ‘The Secret Garden’ or ‘A Little Princess’ (anyone who knows ‘Saplings’ can draw their own conclusions at this point) so I hoped Streatfeild’s style would fit the bill, which it did, I will also admit that before the end it brought tears to my eyes (a mix of sentiment and flu).

Briefly the book tells the story of the Wiltshire family, mainly the 4 children, and the effect the war including the loss of a beloved father has on them. It’s an admittedly flawed but generally brilliant book, and one I can’t help but think more parents should read. Streatfeild gets to the heart of how profoundly little things can undermine children, how important a sense of security is and how easy it is to disappear between the cracks in family and school life.

From the very beginning there are storm clouds on the horizon – both in terms of impending war and within the family dynamic. Lena who is all wife and mistress, mother very much as a second thought is clearly the weak link in the family, through no fault of her own she will never be able to provide the stability her children need from her – when she loses her husband she falls apart, but she’s not really a bad mother, just not naturally suited to the role, and ill prepared for it by a sheltered life of privilege. The Wiltshire children also suffer from their sheltered life, they are particularly ill prepared for their first experiences of life outside the charmed circle of their own home.

In the end only Kim the 3rd child and youngest boy seems likely to thrive, he alone has the resilience to keep on bouncing back and to understand how to get what he wants and needs. Tuesday the baby of the family develops a series of nervous ticks and tricks as the domestic landscape around her continuously changes without explanation.

The older children Laurel and Tony should on the face of it be more equipped to cope, but they both fail utterly. Streatfeild spends more time on Laurel the eldest and her problems are easier for me to understand. Lacking any particular talent or beauty in a family that has both she is consistently brushed aside with little to fall back on, she inherits a need to love and be loved from her mother, although her instincts are more familial she still needs to come first with someone, and although there are plenty of people who care there is no one who cares enough to give her the help or love she needs.

Tony will probably grow out of his problems, as will Tuesday, Kim is already coping by the end of the book, and Lena has found a new husband who will provide her with the care she has to have to survive, but Laurel at 16 is left with the cheering prospect of finishing school and embarking on a career to get away from a home no longer tolerable to her. All in all her future seems bleak to me, and that’s why this strikes me as the kind of book which needs to be widely read and discussed, I wonder how many people can look through their own extended families and not find parallels with the Wiltshire children nor wonder about the times when we might have made just a little bit more effort for someone. All this without preaching – a genuinely thought provoking, conscience pricking book. Well done again Persephone!


  1. I have this on my To-be-read pile. I'm so looking forward to reading it now!

  2. I read this a while ago, I think it was the 2nd Persephone I ever read. I've almost completely forgotten it so must get around to rereading it now that I have my own copy.

  3. A friend in London sent me a copy last year, partly because I've only recently discovered Noel Streatfeild and partly because she said it was a brilliant book. She wasn't wrong. It stayed with me for days after I read it, and I wasn't sure what to think, or what to feel about what I was feeling after I'd finished. It was unsettling because it rang so true, particularly Streatfeild's uncanny and intuitive knowledge of child psychology (or maybe I'm doing her a disservice and it was learned rather than intuited).

    I'm struck with what you said about Persephone, and how books like this make you appreciate their selections. I just received my catalog and biannually from them, and I was interested to read what 'To Bed with Grand Music' is about. I found myself reluctantly sympathetic to the character of Lena in 'Saplings', and I'm looking forward to finding out more about the unfaithful war bride in this new Persephone.