by Noel Streatfeild
This is one of those books that I wished didn’t have to end, though in a way I was glad that it did because it’s the tale of a downward spiral. It’s also a beautiful book physically, being my first (finally!) read from Persephone Books.
Streatfeild is famous for her children’s books, especially Ballet Shoes, but she also wrote books for adults, though they never sold as well. This may possibly be the pick of the bunch but Saplings is so wonderfully good that I am saddened it’s the only one of Streatfeild’s novels for adults currently in print.
It’s a clever, sharply observed book about children, family and war. The Wiltshires are a happy, comfortable middle-class family, with two parents, four children, a nanny and a governess, a home in London and holidays to the seaside. But from the first pages the potential cracks are there. The adults are worrying about the inevitability of war and whether London is a safe place for children. The father Alex worries that war will take him away from his family. The mother Lena worries that she will have to go with the children when all she wants is to be at Alex’s side. The baby of the family, four-year-old Tuesday, frets because the adults are clearly worried, while 11-year-old Laurel mixes together war-time fears with more mundane worries about school:
“She believed in the worst and knew herself to be imagining the best. As a shield she made loud fun of all war precautions…It didn’t matter being the plain one at home, people were used to it. If only she had managed to be super at something, then she could have gone to the Abbey School carrying her ability like a screen.”
The story follows the family from summer 1939 until summer 1944, such a short time but of course one of huge change for Britain as a whole. Streatfeild never tries to extrapolate the wider changes going on, she simply illustrates them through the Wiltshires and their extended family and friends. Things do not just suddenly fall apart, the descent from happiness is gradual. Some of it is unavoidable – evacuating the children to their grandparents’ house and then to boarding school, for their own safety. But a lot of what happens is far more subtle. Things aren’t said that should be, expressions are misunderstood, situations are mishandled. It is a heartbreaking study of avoidable unhappiness. And I thought this passage a very good description of a panic attack:
“He saw the attacks as if they had shape. Huge, black and soft, ready to fall on him…First he felt a tenseness in his diaphragm, which got steadily worse til he was hard in front, as if he were made of wood. Then he had a sinking sensation. The people around him were still there but on a different level, beyond reach…he had to get away alone and let the attack reach its climax. Then everything swam before his eyes, his heart beat quicker and quicker, there was thumping in his ears…”
The prose in insightful rather than poetic but once I realised that the slightly irritating idyll of family life at the start of the story was both part-facade and about to break apart anyway, I was carried along by the momentum of the story. Streatfeild does not keep surprises or mysteries up her sleeve, the narration is open in a way the Wiltshire family never can be. If anything this lesson may be repeated a little too often, but it is such a realistic one, touching on both the stoicism of wartime and the very English habit of keeping one’s emotions to oneself. She does allow herself a few characters who know the children well enough, or are just observant enough, to see what other adults don’t, but the wartime setting keeps these saviours away for long periods.
And without wishing to give anything away, everything is not alright in the end. Bad things have happened and those who are in a good or safe place know that it may not last. This was, after all, published while the war was still going on, and after several years of “It’ll all be over by Christmas,” optimism had faded, even when things were finally going well for the Allies. But also, the two oldest children, Laurel and Tony, have grown up over the course of the story and are 16 and almost 15 at the novel’s close, so they are seeing the world differently in more ways than one.
This is a story full of heart, and completely on the children’s side. Even the best of the adult characters gets thing wrong from the children’s perspective, and Streatfeild shows how a thoughtless word or imagined slight can lead to months of real misery. I wanted so badly for things to suddenly be all good, but of course life isn’t like that.
First published 1945 by Collins.
Published by Persephone Books in 2000.