Aug 26, 2009

Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

Saplings tells the story of the Wiltshire family, focusing specifically on the children, Laurel, Tony, Kim and Tuesday, who grow up during WW2. In 1939, the eldest is eleven and the youngest is four. The book opens with the whole family on a seaside holiday just before the start of the war, and everyone is evidently happy. When the London bombings begin, the Wiltshire children, like many others, are evacuated. First they are sent to to their grandparents’ house in the country; later to boarding schools or to stay with several different aunts. Saplings chronicles the psychological effect these separations, this uncertainly and instability, had on those who had to grow up with them.

What a brilliant book Saplings is. I had never read Noel Streatfeild before (no, not even Ballet Shoes), so I had no idea what to expect. Well, it turns out that she is an excellent writer: subtle, perceptive, sensitive, occasionally ironic, everything that I love. Saplings reminded me a little of A.S. Byatt and (don’t laugh!) of D.H. Lawrence. It was something about the way she uses multiple points of view, jumping from one perspective to another quite frequently, and yet still managing to make it work. I always admire writers who can pull that off, as I imagine that it takes a lot of skill. But most of all, it was the way she wrote about her characters with such tenderness, such care. I loved them; I felt for each and every one of them, no matter how flawed they were.

Another thing I loved about Saplings was how well it captured a child’s perspective and understanding of the world. Noel Streatfeild never underestimates her young characters, and part of what makes this story so sad is that even the most caring adults tend to. When the book opens, Tuesday, the youngest of the children, is only four. But we are told that she was more anxious than any of her older siblings, because the adults always misjudged her and discussed their concerns about the war freely in front of her. She did not, of course, understand all the social and political implications, but she understood the fear, as children always do.

What was for me the most moving part of the book has to do with something Tony sees, something he shouldn’t have seen and which haunts him for over a year. It’s all described so respectfully – what bothers him is not at all a silly fear, or a childish thing to believe. The tragedy is that he becomes so upset he withdraws, and so he suffers alone for a long time until finally, after a conversation with his uncle, he begins to recover.

Another reason why the multiple points of view so enriched the book is because by seeing everyone’s thoughts processes, we are aware of everything that goes wrong, of where each misunderstanding arises. Most of the time people mean well, but somebody still gets hurt. So many times I wanted to scream, “No, no, no!”; I wanted to step into the story and undo a gesture or take back a word. 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. The children are actually very well-off, in the sense that they are physically safe, they never go hungry, and they don't suffer discomforts. And yet my heart still broke for them: I couldn't not take their pains seriously.

Saplings is a story about ordinary tragedies. Separated families and everyday losses were, understandably enough, forgotten in the face of the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust, of nuclear bombs, of destruction and death. Still, these are stories that deserve to be told, and I’m grateful that Noel Streatfeild gave us a glimpse of this hidden side of WWII. The book ends on an ironical note, with Mrs Oliver, who works at the Wiltshire’s home, saying,
‘Turns you over, don’t it, to think of the children? I was saying to my daughter only yesterday, “We got a lot to be thankful for in this country. Our kids ‘aven’t suffered’o-ever else’as.”’
It is not, of course, the same kind of suffering, but it’s suffering all the same. I wholeheartedly recommend Saplings, even to those who normally find the phrase “psychological realism” off-putting. I was hardly able to put it down, and these characters and their story will stay with me for a very long time.

( A side note: if you happen to get a hold of the beautiful Persephone Classics edition of this book, and if you care about knowing plot details in advance, do not read the back cover. It reveals something that happens over two hundred pages into the book, and which I’d much rather have found out when I got there.)

Favourite passages:
To both Laurel and Tony that sentry was the most memorable part of the day. He left them excited and yet with a cold feeling in their stomachs. Anything might happen in a world where sentries turned you back in country lanes. Before, war at home was hearsay, now it was real. It was as surprising as if the ground under their feet had begun to shake, or cats had voices and could talk.

Alex did not answer. Every fibre of the Colonel must be protesting. Odd how, in a world where such unnameable horrors were commonplace, a simple thing like taking his home from an old man could still wring your heart.

There was Mustard. Impossible to exaggerate the comfort he brought. He talked, in what Tony called to himself, a safe way. To him there always had been gardens and there always would be gardens, and there always would be wild things to fight, and that was natural and nothing, as he said, ‘to be upsettin’ of ourselves for’. Wars, and all that were attached to them, were passing inconveniences, but they did not change the pulse of his world.

At school he would wake knowing that he was about to have an attack of fright. He saw the attacks as if they had shape. Huge, black and soft, ready to fall on him. Sometimes, from the time he knew an attack was waiting, it was hours before it came. In the waiting time he was lethargic, dulled by fright.
They read it too:
A Book a Week
A Comfy Chair and a Good Book

(Did I miss yours?)

35 comments:

Amanda said...

Okay, the juxtaposition of Byatt and Lawrence is a little mind boggling! Unrealted question: have you read a lot of Lawrence? I only read Lady Chatterly's lover and hated it so much I gave up 2/3rds of the way through, but I'm starting to think maybe I should try a different book of his. I don't know where to start...

Nymeth said...

Amanda, I've only read three novels and some short stories, but I think that if you hated Lady Chatterly so much, he just might not be an author for you :P Don't kill me for saying this, but I actually see a lot of Lawrence in Byatt. Anyway, I hope that the comparison doesn't put anyone off this book, as it's actually much more accessible than either of those authors. As much as I love them, I'll be the first to admit that they requite a good deal of patience sometimes.

Vivienne said...

Ballet Shoes was one of my favourite books whilst growing up. I have recently started to collect the series of books it features in. I have not heard of Saplings, but it sounds so wonderful and definitely one I would enjoy. Your review makes me want to get started on my AS Byatt books too. I wish I had time to read a book a day, I would whizz through my TBR pile. I also need to have a ban put on me in the library, so I stop getting books out.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

This sounds really good. How do you find all these unique and interesting books?!!!

JoAnn said...

This is going straight to my wish list!!

GeraniumCat said...

I'm so glad you liked this book. I grew up reading Noel Streatfeild, but this was new to me when Persephone reprinted it, and I thought it was wonderful - you have it absolutely right about these being *ordinary* tragedies, yet never seeming too trivial to the reader. I want to give it to my mother and her sister, who were both evacuated during the war - I think they might find much that is familiar in the Wiltshires.

Nymeth said...

Vivienne: Now I want to read all the Shoes books, too. And good luck staying out nof the library!

rhapsodyinbooks: This one was more or less a random find. I knew I wanted something for Persephone Week, and the synopsis sounded good!

JoAnn, I think you'll really enjoy it :)

GeraniumCat: That must make it so much more meaningful to them. I love how Noel Streatfeild always managed to make me care, no matter how small the hurts were - like when Laurel was upset that someone else had been given her room.

Chris said...

Thanks for the tip about not reading the back of the book first! What a wonderful sounding book. Sounds like something I would love. I haven't even heard of Noel Streatfeild before :/ But I love WWII stories and I love anything that deals with the psyche and I love reading about children, so this just sounds nice. And the title is great! I love it!

She said...

I went to the Anna Freud center this summer and learned about the home she had for 'war children' as well as the psychological effects that the war produced on them.

It was so interesting, so I'm excited that there is a book about it! Thanks for reviewing it!!!

kiirstin said...

Thanks for the warning on the back jacket copy. I *really* hate it when publishers do that. But the Persephone edition does look so pretty...

Eva said...

Oh! Ballet Shoes! I haven't read the book, but I saw the new movie version of it and loved it. Plan on getting the book for my niece. :)

Off to see if my library maybe decided to buy some Persephone books...I always just assumed they wouldn't, but I don't think I ever searched.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I've not read anything by the author, and I'm surprised at myself. I am a big fan of WWII books, and they never fail to shake me to the core when we are exposed to not only the macro tragedies (like the camps) but the tiny ones, as shown in this story. They have devastating, lifelong effects. It breaks your heart to hear about children's loss of innocence at being exposed to such things.

Nicola said...

I haven't read this but will try to someday because I absolutely loved her as a kid. I read Ballet Shoes several times as well as other of her books. Wonderful!

claire said...

What an excellent review, Ana! I didn't think I would put Saplings on my top list for next-Persephones-to-be-read, but you've convinced me. I love children and already I feel for them, not even having read the book yet! Persephone is introducing us to a lot of wonderful writers, isn't it? :)

Paperback Reader said...

I have been "saving" Saplings for a very rainy few days and those, I think, will occur soon after Persephone Reading Week. I am so happy that your Persephone choices have been so successful this week.

Cath said...

Definitely one of my favourite reads of 2007. I borrowed it from the library to read but your excellent review makes me want to get my own copy. The story was so powerful that when I wasn't reading it I was actually worrying about the children.

Zibilee said...

I've never read anything by Noel Streatfeild, but have heard her name bandied around a lot. I am glad you really enjoyed this book, and I may try to take a look at it when I get over my WWII burnout. Great review!

Terri B. said...

Another wonderful sounding book that will go on my list of "to reads." You read some of the best stuff!

Iliana said...

There was a forum I used to post on before book blogging where we talked about books and that's how I actually found out about Persephones. Saplings seemed to me to be one of the favorites everyone always mentioned. It sounds really good.

Oh how I wish I could order some Persephones right now. I love those books and would love to add to my little collection.

Green Road said...

That was a very beautiful review. I was moved by the example you chose of the four-year-old who was most concerned because the adults discussed the war before her. I'm guilty of doing that so often, as are most adults.

ds said...

Wonderful review! How perceptive Noel Streatfeild was. Have only read Ballet Shoes, but love, here, the depiction of the four year old (grownups do tend to talk over the smallest ones' heads), and of the black cloud of anxiety facing the brother. You're thinking of the Lawrence of The Rainbow? I haven't read enough Byatt beyond Possession to 'get' the comparison. Guess I have homework to do! Thank you for this!

Melody said...

I've Lady Chatterly's lover in my pile, and I haven't read anything by A.S. Byatt, yet!!!

This sounds like a good read, Nymeth! Thanks so much for the lovely review and for bringing it to my attention. :)

J.T. Oldfield said...

The cover of this book reminded me of this painting:

http://www.pbase.com/bmcmorrow/image/47977448

which I could not remember the name of, who painted it, or where it was held, and thanks to a Google image search was able to find it in less than 5 minutes. I feel proud of myself.

Darlene said...

Great review! This book will stay with me for a very long time I'm sure. I have Ballet Shoes on my dining room table to read when I get the chance. Greyladies also publish some of Streatfeild's work under her pen name of Susan Scarlet(t), not sure if it's one or two.

Staci said...

I truly enjoy how you highlight books that haven't gotten a lot of press. This sounds like a gem that deserves its time in the spotlight.

Amanda said...

Honestly, I don't know much about Byatt. I just know Possession, which I loved more for the story than the writing, so the comparison of the two authors doesn't bother me. I do think I'll try something else by Lawrence - it wasn't the writing that bothered me, but the story. And I was 22 at the time, barely begun reading after a decade of nonreading, so that might have had something to do with it, too. In any case, I don't feel okay dismissing Lawrence without trying something else, first.

Nymeth said...

Chris: The book actually has an afterword by a Dr. Jeremy Holmes about how she anticipated later child psychology theories. The afterword was a bit too psychoanalytical for my taste (unlike the novel), but I bet you'll find it more interesting than I did :P

She: You're welcome! I bet you'll find the novel interesting to!

Kiirstin: I hate it too. It was a quote from a Sunday Telegraph review, so I guess that technically it's their fault, but still, they could have not included it. Persephone, I love you, but this made me sad

Eva: It's too bad your library doesn't have any others, but Miss Pettigrew actually sounds really good!

Sandy: It does break your heart :(

Nicola: I can't wait to read her books for children!

Claire, it definitely is! :)

Other Claire: This will make for some perfect rainy day reading!

Cath: You know, I actually dreamed about the characters, and that doesn't happen very often!

Zibilee, I hope you enjoy it!

Terri B: I try to :P

Iliana: I'm pretty sure that it was at your blog that I heard of Persephone for the first time! And no wonder this one is such a big favourite.

Green Road: I think it's only human to do so... as we grow up we tend to forget just what we knew and understood at that age. I'm thankful that novelists like Streatfeild remind us!

Jenny said...

Well, shoot, I grew up with the Shoes books and never even heard of this. I completely agree about Streatfeild though - she does an amazing job of writing about children. I love it that she doesn't condescend to or romanticize the children she's writing about (and for).

Circus Shoes, by the way, is a good one to start with. Everyone knows Ballet Shoes, which indeed is extremely wonderful, but Circus Shoes seems to me to be drastically underappreciated. Ditto Movie Shoes. And Skating Shoes is great - it's back in print now as White Boots (I believe).

leaningtowardthesun said...

I have Saplings lined up for this weekend. I appreciate your wonderful review and am now super excited to read. I am curious to read the story from all of those points of view. It is a difficult thing to pull off. And thanks for the warning about the back of the classic edition as I usually start there before reading.
-Danielle

Andreea said...

Sounds like a great read. I've never heard of the author before. Thanks for mentioning this book!

Rebecca :) said...

Well-written review, Nymeth! I love how your synopsis was brief and did not go on for half of your review (or like some people, 3/4 of their review). I also liked the different ways you explained what worked about this book and how you explained why it was "brilliant." The quotes were also great. I am adding this one to my Friday Finds tomorrow!

Teddy Rose said...

I really like WWII fiction and this one sounds great. I added it to my TBR.

Alice Teh said...

This is new to me. I tend to get quite depressed after reading stories like this but I also find reading them very rewarding.

Amy said...

This does sound like a great book that I hope to read. :) Your tweets about it made me interested. I won't read the back though as I hate that!

kiirstin said...

Actually, I hate it when they include excerpts from reviews on the jacket that affect my reading of the book almost more than I hate blurbs that do it. Alice, I Think by Susan Juby was almost ruined for me by something the Vancouver Sun said; I spent the entirety of the book wishing I had never seen it, but it was on the front cover so how could I have avoided it?