Fiction – print. Persephone Books, 2009. Originally published 1945. 377 pgs. Purchased.
In 1939, the four Wiltshire children enjoy an idyllic summer holiday with their parents, a middle-class couple from central London. Their holiday – and, in fact, their comfortable lives – ends with the children being informed that the two oldest, Laurel and Tony, will be sent to boarding school while the two younger children, Kim and Tuesday, will be sent with Nannie to live with their paternal grandparents.
At first, the children struggle with separation from their parents, who resumed their lives together in London after the children’s mother, Lena, refused to be separated from her husband. The arrival of two more young boys at Grandmother Wiltshire’s house causes tension and animosity, especially after the two non-relatives are given the room Laurel long ago claimed as her own. And the children are especially disappointment that their parents won’t recall them back to London when the promised bombings don’t begin.
But the children prove just how resilient they are – the good soldiers for England their father, Alex, asked them to be – when the war with Nazi Germany finally arrives on Britain’s soil. Laurel – often described as rather uninteresting by her mother – thrives at her all girls boarding school while her youngest brother, Kim, readily takes to the lessons given him by the children’s young maid-turned-governess.
Eventually, the war touches the children’s lives with devastating consequences. A Nazi bombing campaign levels the family’s London home, killing the children’s beloved father. Tony travels to London alone to see the devastation and becomes haunted by the sound of taping, convinced that his father was buried alive under the rubble.
Laurel is pulled from her beloved school and sent to the one her cousins attend without the proper uniform or the glowing recommendation of her headmistress. Kim’s teacher is called up to serve, forcing him to face two losses in short order. And young Tuesday is lost in the shuffle. Only Nannie notices the nervous ticks she’s developed, although her ability to help Tuesday is hindered by her new role as family cook.
Unfortunately, none of the children can turn to Lena as she has turned to alcohol and relationships with American men to cope with her loss, leaving her sisters-in-law to see her as unfit to mother her children during school holidays. As the war continues, the children are doled out to different relatives, hindering their ability to grieve together.
I’m unfamiliar with Streatfeild’s books for children, which the afterward said are quite popular in Great Britain, so I went into this novel without any expectations about its content or message. I can see why her children’s books would be so popular; she clearly has a gift for writing from the child’s perspective. I felt every part of Laurel’s indignation even though, as an adult, I know the events of 1939 to 1945 demand sacrifice from those on the home front.
And, as the afterward by Jeremy Holmes explains, her understanding of the psychological damage war has on children was quite novel for 1945 (and even for fictional writers today). Few people understood – or, were willing to understand – the tenderness children need to adapt to sudden change, but Streatfeild uses her novel to remind readers that a lack of attention and understanding can have long-term consequences.
For example, Tony’s depression over his father’s death hinders his academic achievement, yet neither his teachers nor most of his relatives bother to understand the connection between these two events. People who are supposed to care about him to tell him to buck up as everyone has been impacted by the war and then dismiss him as a damaged child when he cannot.
Eventually, someone catches on to Tony’s thought process and helps him confront the truth of his loss, showing him the tenderness that no one else was willing to give. He grows from a tender sapling (hence the title) to a strong young man who helps the war effort and his sisters.
The outcome for Tony is part of the semi-happy ending Streatfeild offers her characters, so the novel does end on satisfying — albeit surprisingly unrealistic, given the bulk of the novel — note. But the path to reach that point was unrelentingly dreary, and I kept seeking out long breaks between chapters.
This is my eleventh book for #20BooksofSummer. I purchased my copy directly from the publisher in April 2017. Streatfeild’s novel was reissued as part of the Persephone Classics collection, which presents twelve of Persephone Books’ bestsellers in more ‘bookshop-friendly’ editions (i.e. with pictures on the front). The endpaper in these editions are printed in greyscale, so the 1938 fabric “Aircraft” by Marion Dorn presents “birds freely in flight” as “the imagery of aircraft being readied for war” without the fabric’s original blues, yellows, and greens.