NYRB Reading Week: Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows

After reading the book, I tried looking for images on google using keywords such as: post world war II London, catford street, London street images – but came up with very little (surprisingly). I suppose I wanted to match the image of London as described by Rumer Godden in her book with actual photos as researched in the Internet.

The book is quite long but I was able to finish it in three-four evenings. It was not as riveting as I had hoped in the beginning, but the momentum slowly builds up – which is odd because the pace of the writing remains the same – yet you feel this surge of excitement as a reader, engaging you to find out what happens next to the little sparrows who dared fly out into the nightwinds.

Setting. Imagine post world war II London streets – the city has just been bombed, and there are ruins of schoolhouses, churches, buildings that litter the fastidiously-pristine face of London.

St. Paul’s Cathedral during London Blitz, 1940 – Buy at allposters.com

Aftermath of London Blitz

The class divide is very clearly evident with this line from the book (p. 4):

Mortimer Square, gracious and imposing, with its big houses, stood, like many other London squares, on the edge of a huddle of much poorer streets. That had always bothered Olivia. ‘It’s too rich’ she said, meaning the Square, ‘and too poor’ meaning Catford Street.

Yet despite this, the book has a lighthearted feel to it that defies the societal context in which it was written. There is that sense of ‘rising above’ (dare I say transcendence) that negates all the supposedly-negative vibe that emanates from what should have been a tragic setting. No melodrama, no simulated emotion, just the stark innocence, wide-eyed sharing of what is. And the clarity of childhood. Let me quote again from Olivia’s words (p. 13) – I believe this captures how children/sparrows are characterized in the novel:

Olivia divined something in children – not in her nieces and nephews, Noel’s children, who were precocious and spoiled – but in the children who were let alone, real children. Though she knew from Angela’s dealings with them that they were blunt, even rude – as I am myself, thought Olivia, they seemed to her truer than grown-ups, unalloyed; watching them, she knew they were vital; if you were with them you would be alive, thought Olivia.

I can not agree more. I have this special connection with children that I can not explain. I just see them. And enjoy them and feel freer than most when around them.

 

My sparrows from Antioch, California

Real sparrows from the Philippines

My Aussie Sparrows from Sydney

Sparrows from Singapore and the Philippines

There is just that brimming joy that surrounds them that can not be contained by high-

My very own sparrow – half of my soul

pitched squeals, wrestling-hugs that knock you down unconscious, and brutal honesty that grown-ups find difficult to emulate but just can’t.

The inspiration for the book. The Author’s Preface effectively conveys the plot that technically moves the story along. She related that she liked walking the streets of bombed-out London and spent a lot of time listening and talking to the children “those little London sparrows.” She recalls receiving a call from the two ladies who lived in the square who unceremoniously told her that the earth in her window boxes had been stolen from the gardens in the square. Godden shares: “The elder of the two ladies, who wore a hat with blue feather wings, spoke those, to me, memorable words: ‘If you want earth you can buy it from the Army and Navy stores, seven shillings and sixpence the carton.’” Thus, the character of Miss Angela Chesney (officer of the Garden committee) was born.

Lovejoy (and Tip). Lovejoy is not your typical child. Waif would be a better word to use, really – with all its vibe of abandonment, neglect, and wretchedness. Yet Godden does not despair in the writing – instead she focuses on other things, like Lovejoy’s keen sense of the aesthetics without sacrificing value for money (good solid pumps are preferable, but sailor caps should be bought too since “Sailors are fashionable this year”), her wonderment and open-eyed awareness of things around her (naïve but not quite), and the complexity of the woman-child struggling within.

Sandhurst School Bombing

Snippets of how unloved Lovejoy is (what a fitting name) are more powerful than full-blast maudlin scenes, that I almost feel like there is a surreal-poetic quality to her suffering. Such is the subtlety and the texture of the storyline that while it touches a core within you that cries out in anguish for this little child’s pain, you don’t shed a tear because there is a garden that needs tending. A secret secret garden where jiminy crickets bloom with stolen earth (despite earth’s being ‘common’ thus owned by all). It is beautiful how a child devoid of motherly squishies and kisses and yes “kitten-dances”– could be this fiercely loyal and nurturing. She has developed this rough exterior that makes her survive out in the streets, with her uncanny sense about people and their innermost sensibilities. Yet notwithstanding the rough-edges, she remains this dreamy, inquisitive child with the sensitive heart that breaks and rebuilds (on its own accord) every now and again. This scene here is what moved me:

Though the bedroom was perfectly tidy she began to dust it again, wiping down the window with her duster. The glass was dirty with steam and smoke, and slowly, with her finger, she began to write on it. Mother, wrote Lovejoy. Mother. She got as far as the second M when the letters all ran together in a blur. She rubbed them out with the duster and then knelt down, her head on the window sill.

 

She had meant to cry, but before any tears could come she saw on the sill, level with her eyes but hidden under the curtain where it had been forgotten all these days, the pillbox of seeds.

So yes, no time for needless sentimentality, girl, there is earth to tend to, a secret garden that needs some loving, and colorful flowers to grow.

Tip, on the other hand, is your typical gentleman gangster at age eleven  – tough yet gentle, mischievous yet noble, rough yet weak-kneed when it comes to … of all people, Lovejoy. Two unlikely street urchins finding a home in each other.

 

Catford around Newquay Road Area

These two beautiful sparrows reminded me of what it’s like to be young and in love. When “love” is not love the way adults define it – when it remains to be that hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach (that isn’t brought about by hunger), seen in the way the boy gently (but with a dab of irritation) takes dirt out of the girl’s eyes, and patiently waking up at odd hours to get ‘dirt’ because that is what the little missus requires. This is how beautifully Rumer Godden describes it:

“…he became both weak and strong. The weakness seemed to come from somewhere above his stomach, where his counterpart, Adam, had lost a rib, perhaps, and it was sweet and powerful, a tug, as if the rib were attached and pulling; it made him do “Anything,” said Tip helplessly. Wrong things, silly things. Well a man can’t go against his own rib, he might have said.”

Narrative Style. For a book that was first published in 1955, the book has a postmodern feel to it with the non-linear retelling of the narrative, the shifts in perspectives and voice orientation. If it were to be made into a film, it would definitely be pegged in the indie, postmodern category with the sudden shifts of timeline voice-over narration, and overarching storyline. Thus, an early reader would most probably have a difficult time with the book. In fact, it was initially meant to be an adult novel, until it was reclassified as young adult fiction in its republication.

What strikes me most though is the way that Godden has captured a child’s awakening to life’s realities stripped of sentimentality. Truth be told, I had my doubts somewhere in the beginning whether it is something that would hold my attention and engage me, and now I realize that this is classic craftsmanship in writing – with subtle imageries, constant moving around of the voices, and the authenticity of the child’s youthful voice ringing out in the pages.

The Audacity of the Sparrows’ Spirit. What strikes me the most about this entire tale is the sheer audacity of Lovejoy to even crave for beauty and to be happy and carefree. How dare this abandoned young ‘un to even want color, pumps, alyssum and African marigolds? Such impertinence. It shows the unlikely triumph of the neglected spirit to rise above mundane things. This is mirrored as well in the character of Vincent and his passion for refrigerators and fine cutlery – so much so that the frail, pathetic, piteously-huge class divide forces one’s eyes open to how strikingly-disparate the realities are.

 

Streets of London in present day

Then you find plain, old, sickly Olivia in the more affluent part of the town, with all her trinkets, doilies, spacious rooms – and insufferable –near-perfect sister, Miss Angela Chesney who is able to command even a rough-hewn stone to bend at will because she asked it to. Olivia, who, in her old age, is craving for something real, something true. Lost in all the niceties, proprieties, and all that wealth passed on to the next generation and the next and the next – the spirit of what is significant, what is ALIVE, what is joyful – seems lost in the fineries, good graces, and such tremendous air of superiority you have to be born with it, it can not possibly be taught. A perfect illustration of it is Miss Angela Chesney’s explanation as to why orphans, waifs, poor people deserve to be pitied:

“ ‘Because they are destitute, which means they have nothing. Nothing at all,’ said Angela, ‘except what some kind person chooses to give them. You should be grateful and not criticize,’ said Angela.

‘But I can think?’ said Lovejoy. She meant it as a question but it sounded bald and rude.”

Yes, is she even allowed to think? At all? Thus, the desire of Angela Chesney for this little girl’s spirit to be “broken” – she is way too cocksure and independent. How dare this poor girl display such arrogance and fullness of spirit and certainty/clarity of character.

Endnotes. An Episode of Sparrows pokes and prods one’s sensibility in little snapshots of despair, glimpses of beauty-that-could-be, and the careworn attempts at niceties and dignity of character rising above the Earth. The terrestrial earth that is common to all. Not the one bought from the “Army and Navy stores, seven shillings and sixpence the carton.”

Sources
St. Paul’s Cathedral during London Blitz, 1940: http://www.squidoo.com/st_pauls_cathedral/101831451-St-Paul-s—The-History – buy at allposters.com
Aftermath of London Blitz: https://swogdog.wikispaces.com/MOD3Group8
Catford around Newquay Road area: http://www.ww2talk.com/forum/united-kingdom/16097-south-east-london-during-blitz-7.html
Sandhurst school bombing: http://www.ww2talk.com/forum/united-kingdom/16097-south-east-london-during-blitz-7.html
Rumer Godden image: http://www.rumergodden.com/
Street of London: http://www.photo-visible.com/photos/photo_en361.aspx


8 Comments on NYRB Reading Week: Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows

  1. Jack Sorenson // November 9, 2010 at 8:25 am // Reply

    Great post -looks like you had a fun time.

    Like

  2. Mary of GatheringBooks // November 9, 2010 at 9:42 am // Reply

    Enjoyed this book. Reminded me of the Book Thief. There was that element of Lovejoy and Tip in The Book Thief and a child’s life amidst war.

    Like

  3. What a lovely review! This is a book I would definitely want to read as I read one Rumer Godden book last year which I really loved, The Greengage Summer. She’s a wonderful writer who can really convey such vivid images. Thanks for joining NYRB Reading Week and I love it that you’re reviewing a number of books from the Children’s Collection.

    Like

    • myragarcesbacsal // November 9, 2010 at 12:28 pm // Reply

      Mrs B, you (and Honey) have an Inspired Idea – and it’s such a huge pleasure to do this. THANK YOU for coming up with this bookblogging event. The children’s collection of NYRB is just breathtakingly good, we’d probably extend our NYRB reviews for another week! Hahaha. =)

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  4. Hi, Myra! Catching up on the reading and commenting and this is another fantastic review! I understand what you mean about having doubts about a book holding one’s attention, then being surprised by the beauty and finesse of it all. I was moved by how you described love for “those two beautiful sparrows” and how its anchored on small, concrete things. Also, I’m very impressed with Gathering Books’ posts because you guys have so many pictures as reference to what you say in your reviews. Awesome!

    Like

    • myragarcesbacsal // November 14, 2010 at 4:34 pm // Reply

      Thanks Honey, we do try to fill it with as much images (and even videoclips) as we can. We feel that it enlivens the post considerably. Since our goal is to also make this a resource for teachers/parents alike, we strive to provide historical context, background, and further research about the books that we write about, in addition to our own reflective thoughts (if time permits, that is hahaha). We’re very happy that you like it. =)

      Like

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