Friday, March 02, 2007

Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

This is the book that I ordered from Persephone Books. Streatfeild is the author of over 80 books, most of which are long out of print. The exception is her series known in the US as "The Shoe Books" which includes Dancing Shoes, Ballet Shoes, Theatre Shoes, Skating Shoes – any others? I can't remember, but I read them all as a child. These books have been continuously in print since the 1930's. No small accomplishment.

Saplings is written for adults, but, not surprisingly, has four children as protagonists. At first I was anxious about this. I don't usually enjoy books that have children as main characters because writing from a child's point of view is very tricky, and few authors really get it right. Yet I needn't have feared. Streatfeild's skill in writing about children for children enables her to create child characters who are complex and believable to adult readers as well.

The book takes place between 1939 and 1944 or ‘45. The four Wiltshire children are fractured by war, leaving London to live at first with grandparents in the country, then sent to various boarding schools, and eventually to other relatives when their father is killed in an air raid and their London house is destroyed. Their mother, Lena, is a type no longer seen in modern literature. A vacuous beauty, she strives to be a pleasure to her children, a darling companion, a giver of delights. She leaves all the dirty work of parenting to the nannies and governesses. Her failures, as the nannies and governesses are called up, and she is left to actually raise her own children, are shocking, and the children suffer accordingly. Lena sinks into alcoholism and promiscuity, and the children fall apart in all different ways. The adult relatives and friends are fairly ineffective, though the grandfather comes through in the end. This is not a happy story. But it is great reading for fans of mid-20th century British fiction.

You can only get this book through Persephone Books, unless perhaps you find an ancient used copy, or you get it from a university library. Friends who would like to borrow my copy are welcome to it. But ordering from Persephone is easy and fast and less expensive than you might think.

(Book 10, 2007)


Anonymous said...

Very interesting, thanks. I have sent it to Jenny, as she's recently read all these, starting with Ballet Shoes and working her way through the oeuvre. Two you missed are Tennis Shoes and Circus Shoes. They were not all called "shoes" when they first came out (eg White Boots, and the theatre and circus ones had different original titles) -- but were rebranded on a later reissue by the publisher.
It is interesting how relevant these books remain, as Jenny has been as keen on these as on any contemporary favourite.

Becky Holmes said...

Oooh I don't think I read either of these! Circus Shoes sounds familiar, but I haven't even heard of Tennis Shoes. I wonder if it's available in the US (have to check). I think what is relevant about these books even now is how realistic the children are. She perfectly captures how children feel and think, the kinds of secrets they keep, what they fear and what they long for, and she shows us that this is the same in 1930 and 2007. And she does it again in Saplings.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I posted a comment yesterday but I think it has got 'lost'. I enjoyed your review. I was planning to treat myself to a new Persephone and I now think I'll get Saplings. (I loved Ballet Shoes, too). I can recommend The Making of a Marchioness if you're looking for more Persephone books to read - and it has beautiful tulip endpapers!

Becky Holmes said...

Nicola, thanks. I was wondering about that very one, because I love The Secret Garden (who doesn't?) and A Little Princess. I have just gotten two other Persephone books from the library, but I have a list of titles I want to buy as well.

Jenny Davidson said...

I loved those books when I was little and read them again and again, I must have read "Ballet Shoes" fifty times and many of the others almost as many! I read "Saplings" a few years ago, got it from the library, of course it's terribly depressing compared to the children's ones. The rebranding must have happened pretty early--I know it was one of my first introductions to "different titles in different countries" phenomena, the library book at home in the US was called "Movie Shoes" but the copy at my grandparents' in England was "The Painted Garden." ("Circus Shoes" is significantly weaker in my opinion than most of the others; and you know Streatfeild later in life wrote a number of more modern children's ones, also often with a dancing-related theme, but they are not nearly so good as the older ones). "Tennis Shoes" is great. I reread "White Boots" again recently & found it also very good, I think that & "Ballet Shoes" are probably strictly speaking the best written.

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