Saturday, April 4, 2009

Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

21. Saplings
by Noel Streatfeild
fiction, 1945
paperback, 361 pages
finished, 4/1/09

Because I've had trouble getting a clear photograph of the other two Persephone books I've read, A House in the Country and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, I decided to focus on the endpaper. One of the trademarks of these beautiful editions is that each book has its own special endpaper and bookmark.

Endpapers taken from 'Aircraft' a screen printed linen and rayon fabric by Marion Dorn for the Old Bleach Linen Company 1938, reproduced by courtesy of the Trustees of the Victoria & Albert Museum

a young tree, esp. one with a slender trunk.
poetic/literary - a young and slender or inexperienced person.

Reading Saplings so soon after two of the Melendy family books, reported on here and here, was a startling experience. There were the Melendys safe in America; their father with an undisclosed but definitely not dangerous job. Their mother had died many years ago, but the caregiver Cuffy has done an excellent job as a mothering person in their lives. Their father is away a bit working, but when he is home he is a very loving, supportive man who gives guidance and encouragement to his children. The four Melendys are deeply happy and secure.

Compare this to the poor Wiltshire children, who even before the war have their troubles. The mother Lena is superficial, and her children are mostly decorations. She is the type often derogatorily referred to as a 'man's woman.' Her husband Alex is her main interest with the children a far-off second. She is actually annoyed when her husband takes time away from her to be with the children.

With war imminent, the children go off to live with their father's parents in the country. Alex says:

I'm not going to point out that other people's breakups [of families] are worse. You know for yourselves that you going to your grandparents is a different cup of tea to young Tom and Mary Smith evacuated with labels round their necks to strangers. ... I want you to see yourselves as part of the nation. ... nearly everybody, including the children, are doing what they have to do without fuss.

And so it begins. The 'breakup' of the family. The dissolution of ties between child and parent, and child and child. Even the grandparents' house isn't what it was. Two evacuee children have been brought there. This older couple, used to their quiet ways in the retirement years are stretched. The emotional care of the children is neglected because of too much work. The children, Tony, Laurel, Kim, and Tuesday are thrown onto the seas of misunderstanding and fear and insecurity.

More than sixty years on, most of us know the Second World War only through documentary footage. The brave Londoners coping so well. The children off to the safe countryside away from nightly bombings of the city. Never before have I read about the actual pain - the stories of what this war in England meant to people. There's a character, a governess named Ruth who is greatly loved by the children. We learn some about her past, and see a little of her present life, but mostly she is there as an observer. She tells the reader what is going on in the family unit. This is a deeply psychological novel; so much so that I sometimes felt the characters were more case studies than real people. It isn't a fun book to read. It isn't an easy book to read. There is much cruelty inflicted on the children by adults who should be taking care of them. This comes mostly in the form of verbal abuse. Criticisms that are voiced either to the child or within his hearing. I was angry at so many of the characters. There was such disregard of the children's feelings.

In addition to the subject matter, I didn't think the writing was particularly good either grammatically or descriptively. The characters remained just that. Yet, I read all 361 pages. I'm not sure what kept me going. I didn't know while I was reading, and I still don't know now. I'm happy to have made the acquaintance of the children. Perhaps I stayed with it because of my interest in that time period. I learned a great deal about what evacuation did to families, even when no one died, and I learned about the children's lives who stayed in London. But it was not a soul-satisfying book. It was sad and painful, but so much of that pain could have been avoided if only there was more compassion shown to the children. Still, I am glad I read it, and I thank my English friend Carole for sending it to me. I will happily pass it along to anyone who would like to read it. You may leave a note saying you want it on any blog entry today through Tuesday,April 7. I'll draw a name on Wednesday, the 8th. I'll send it anywhere.


  1. Cait, I think they are the icing on the cake of this wonderful Persephone endeavor.

  2. That time in our history fascinates me. I'm a fan of Noel Streatfeild's "shoe" books (How I love children's literature!) and had not heard of this book of hers. The end papers are beautiful!Toss my name in the basket, please.

  3. Well, Karin, there's an afterward in the book by a psychology fellow and he talks about the 'shoe' books, and you'd probably love reading it. Your name is in the draw. :<)

  4. Personally, I thought this book was superb. I felt it was a true portrayal of the way children used to be treated - in this country anyway. Our modern sensibilites are upset by it and no wonder! But once upon a time adults really didn't pay much attention to the needs and opinions of children. They were 'seen and not heard' and expected not to bother adults with their problems. It took me a week or so to read this book and when I wasn't reading I was actually worrying about the children in it - its effect on me was so powerful. Yes it is a very sad book, oddly enough though I didn't find the writing particularly poor but perhaps I was too wrapped up in the tragic story of the children to notice. An excellent review, Nan, and interesting to see an opinion that differs to others I've read.

  5. Please put my name in the draw! Tabitha.

  6. Well, I've never heard of this Noel Streatfield~ my daughter borrowed a book on Queen Victoria which Noel wrote from a friend. Not a Shoe book!
    There was a letter in my friend's book typed by Noel Streatfield about why she wrote this Landmark Book. I would love to send you a copy if you are interested. And yes, put me in this giveaway!


  7. I haven't read this book but I have seen many accounts of hardship suffered by some evacuee children, ranging from neglect to downright cruelty. Of course many children were treated well but some of the accounts are quite harrowing.

    Please add my name to the draw.

  8. First time I read this I did not like it very much and was disappointed. I then came back to it a few years later and this time the penny dropped and I realised that I had been expecting a 'Streatfield ballet shoe' type book when, of course, it was nothing of the sort. The depiction of a family who, on the surface survived the War well, but underneath they suffered badly, was very well done indeed. I have another of her adult books on my shelves, they are rather difficult to find but prove once again, as with richmal crompton and Frances Hodgson Burnett, that writers who are deemed 'children's' authors are anything but.

    I have just finished reading Two People by A A Milne (yes he of Winnie the Pooh et al) and it is masterly and perceptive, an account of a marriage where there are disparate levels of intellectual understanding. I have just posted about it.

    Sorry for the long comment - I just wanted to drop by and say hello!

  9. Isn't it funny, Nan, I absolutely loved this book. Not easy reading, I agree, it's very painful in places, but I was completely caught up in the story of these children, and my beautful Perspephone edition is one of the books I keep right next to my bed in case I want to return to it. The English wartime setting felt exactly right to me, very much in keeping with my mother's descriptions of her wartime childhood, with its often unintentional neglect of children's needs and feelings. And while I hated the effect the superficial Lena had on her family, I couldn't help but be sorry for someone who was so obviously unfitted for motherhood, in an age when it was what was expected of her.

  10. I'd love to be included in the draw, it sounds a fascinating novel.

  11. Cath, thank you so much for writing such an in-depth note. If a certain event had not occurred, those children (and even Lena) would have come out of the War differently. I think I was struck by the contrast between the mother and all the news footage I've seen about people 'bucking up' and remaining cheerful in a time of such horror and deprivation. I'm positive Streatfeild's so-called 'fiction' is closer to the truth than the factual footage we've all see which was probably more propaganda than reality. And the thing is, I fear that many children are treated with the same neglect now as then. At least there was a war to blame it on then. There are a lot of them raising themselves. Again, I thank you, Cath. This is the kind of 'book talk' I just love - hearing people's thoughts and feelings about books.

    Tabitha, you are in!

    Bonnie, isn't that amazing! Thank you for offering to copy the letter for me. I'd love to read it, or perhaps you'd like to do a blog entry showing the whole letter? I'm sure many people would love to read it. Did you ever see You've Got Mail? When Meg Ryan is in Tom Hanks' bookstore, she overhears a customer asking about the 'shoe books' and the clerk doesn't know so MR tells the customer who the author is and the titles. It's a wonderful scene. You are in the draw, Bonnie!

    Maureen, while this does deal with the evacuee situation, it is really more about the falling apart of this one family which probably would have happened anyway, but the War was the catalyst. I have a Robert Barnard book on my shelf called Out of the Blackout. Have you read it? You're in the drawing!

    Elaine, first of all, please never apologize for a long comment. I love long notes! I've never read any of the 'shoe' books so I had no expectations of this one at all. I am sure I'll never read it a second time, but those children will always stay with me, while I try to forget that mother! I'm interested in the Milne book. Have you ever read the one his son wrote - The Enchanted Places? It awaits me on the shelf. :<)

  12. Jodie, I loved reading this. I'm sure it is a true depiction of how things were. I just asked Maureen if she has read Out of the Blackout by Robert Barnard, and I wonder if you have. I haven't yet but it is about the evacuee situation - in this case about a man who was never claimed after the war and when he moves to London as an adult he has a sense of familiarity about the place. I love to think of you going back to Saplings to reread passages. That is surely the best praise one could give a book. And we saw where Lena got her mothering skills didn't we - from that woman in California. Not much about her but enough to know she was no gem! Thanks for such a thoughtful note.

    Carole, you're in!

  13. Nan, no I haven't read Out of the Blackout - perhaps that is another one to look out for one day.

    I have always been interested in social history, particularly in the changing pattern of family life and the attitude towards childhood, so I shall look out for the Noel Streatfeild book if my name doesn't come out of the hat. The comments from other readers have really stirred my curiosity.

  14. Maureen, even if you don't love it I'm sure you will like reading about the time. It really is specific to one family, but there are many details about the damages of war, both physical and emotional. It would be a good fictional companion piece to Bombers & Mash.

  15. I have this Persephone book sitting on my little revolving bookcase in the bed sitting room upstairs, but not yet read it (well, as I've said before, what's the point of having read all one's books? The whole point of a library of one's own is having something from which to choose which one hasn't read. This is my stock-in-trade reply to non-readers who always trot out the question: "Have you read 'em all?" As if!
    Margaret Powling

  16. I agree, Margaret. Wouldn't it be awful to have only books in the house you've already read?! I love walking around looking for what I'm going to read next. Sometimes I'll pass by a book several times, and then go back and decide this is the one. :<)

  17. Persephone Books are so beautifully produced - just a tad expensive.

    I'm not familiar with 'Saplings' but having read all about it here will now have to scurry out and find a copy. It sounds like a story written from another time and another place - which is what 60 years does to us I suppose.

  18. Nan
    I'd love to have you add my name 'to the hat' and am looking forward to reading it either way.

  19. As a child I loved "Apple Bough" by Noel Stretfield- I have my copy still, similar in theme to the "shoe" books. I have had this title on my wanted list of Persephone's. Well to be honest one wants them all! So would love to be added to your draw.

  20. Mountainear, living over here, I see the 10£ cost and read it as 10$ and think I'm getting a great deal! :<) I'll put your name in the draw and maybe you won't have to go looking for it.

    Mim, your name is in!

    Kentish Maid, your name is on the list! And yes one does want them all. :<)

  21. It is clear that I need to go look at more Noel Streatfield books.

  22. Sarah, maybe you'll win the draw!

  23. Nan, I think you might prefer her children's books, they really are very special. As the Meg Ryan character says, I would start with Ballet Shoes.
    Interesting to read all the different takes on Saplings. I find that a lot of the books on the Persephone list are pretty sad, with some notable exceptions of course. Do you get their catalogue? I'm sure they send it to the U.S, it's well worth reading.


  24. Carole, I'm so glad you stopped by. I almost emailed to let you know that I had written about it. I am so very grateful you sent it to me. I do get their catalogue and oh, how I love it. I feel like I'm in heaven when I read it. I've bought three books from them, and have read two (Miss Pettigrew and A House in the Country), loved one (Miss P), didn't care so much for the other (House in Country), and haven't read the third (Greenery Street). Mr Wodehouse thought Mackail was great and that's enough for me to have bought it.:<)

  25. I just learned about the Persephone books this week through Darlene at roses over a cottage door. I made a wish list on the spot after visiting their website and this was one of them. I also have his shoes books on my TBR list. Reading the different reviews makes me want to read it even more, so I'd love to enter the giveaway. Thank you.

  26. Books Psmith, your name is in!

  27. What a wonderful, thorough book review, Nan. I love reading about this time period and might be interested in the book, although don't put my name in the hat. I have far too many to read right now and I'll just add it to my Amazon wishlist for future reference. You and I differ on so many books that I will remain optimistic that it's a winner for me. :)

  28. Les, I'm quite sure you would like it. I, too, am very interested in that time period, and esp. in England, and the book certainly feels authentic because it was written then. Are you sure you don't want your name in? Right now there are only ten names in the hat. :<)

  29. Oh, what the heck. Throw my name in! ;)

  30. It's in, Les! one chance out of eleven - at this point. not bad odds.

  31. Don't put my name in the hat for this one. I just finished reading it last night myself.
    I pretty much devoured this book. It was heart wrenching and painful at times but I thought it was excellent none the less.
    I would love to track down some more of her adult novels but know it won't be easy.

  32. Add my name to the hat too, please. I read the 'shoes' books when I was growing up, and I will probably get at least one or two of them for my oldest granddaughter in another year or two. I didn't realize, however, that Noel Streitfield wrote adult's books—how lovely, another set of books to look for and anticipate!

  33. Jeanette, what a great note. I loved reading what you thought.

    Anita, your name is in the draw!

  34. Nan, I think a lot of British people of my generation were brought up on stories of what their parents did in the war and the overwhelming feeling was of all mucking in together and 'making do and mending'. And they did, it's true. But people are people and it wasn't until I was older that I realised there was a lot more to it than that. That many people actually did quite well, financially, out of the war and that some had awful stories to tell of neglect and hardship. Foyle's War is a brilliant series to watch in that respect... but I think you've seen that, haven't you?

    Anyway I really just popped in to say that I saw your comment about Robert Barnard, investigated this 'unknown to me' author, and now own Out of the Blackout (it came this morning) and have one of his crime novels, Fete Fatale on the way. You're a bad influence, Nan! ;-)

  35. Cath, isn't Foyle's War just the best! Oh, I loved every episode. I read somewhere that there might be a 'Foyle's Peace' - wouldn't that be great.
    Glad you are helping keep the economy going!
    Don't forget Barnard's Skeleton in the Grass while you are shopping. :<)

  36. I have this one on the shelves here...

    So, how are you doing with Persephone books? I know you weren't crazy about A House in the did you feel about Miss Pettigrew?
    I do have a sense of what sorts of books you'll like and what sorts you won't. And to think we've never met.

  37. Tara, that's so interesting, and I know it is true because I feel that I know what you like, too!


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