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Susan’s Bookshelves: An Episode of Sparrows

Rumer Godden’s powerful, unsentimental 1955 novel is about children.  But, however it might have been marketed, it doesn’t feel like a children’s novel – whatever we think that is, and of course in the 66 years since it was written we’ve taken to categorising many books as “young adult” or YA. Nonetheless it used to be widely read/taught in classrooms. I first discovered and read it when I was on teaching practice at a girls’ secondary school in Worthing in 1967 where one of the classes I was assigned to teach was studying it as a class reader.

Rereading it over half a century later I’m struck by a number of things. I love the contemporary detail – Lyons Corner House, the bombed church which needs rebuilding, the old fashioned police station, the newspaper vendor, the pre-decimal money and all the rest of it. I would have been about the age the central character, Lovejoy Mason, is when this book is set and some of the setting is my childhood too although I was more fortunate than she is for most of the novel.

Lovejoy lives with a couple who run a restaurant.  They’re kind but have serious financial problems of their own including the disappearance of Loveday’s single mother and her failure to pay for her child’s keep. Loveday’s background lurks murkily in the narrative but it’s clear to the adult reader what is going on in relation to the feckless actress mother and her men.

Beneath the bravado, cockiness and independence Loveday is a sensitive child who likes beautiful things. Starting from a position of total horticultural ignorance she gradually discovers that if you plant seeds,  even in a dirty, struggling environment like Catford Street, they grow into fresh new plants. So she creates a secret garden – with help from the decent, but outwardly tough, local gang leader, Tip Malone. And to do it they need topsoil –  which they’ve seen lying about for the taking in a nearby London square garden. Then the inevitable happens.

This book is peopled by dozens of rounded, likeable people (and a few strident stirrers) including the neighbours and shopkeepers on the street, the middle class inhabitants of the square, the local catholic priest, a pair of nice people with wealth and big car and Tip’s parents who aren’t at all pleased  when Lovejoy – as they see it – gets their lad into trouble.

When I first read An Episode of Sparrows (only a decade or so after it was written) I thought what a warm, perceptive, upbeat novel it is. And I’ve come away from it with the same reaction now. These children needed understanding and kindness not judgement by people who don’t know the half of it. They’re growing up in a very challenging environment and Loveday’s situation is dire. The children’s home she may have to go to is kindly but thoughtlessly cavalier about children’s real feelings. And yet that’s how it would have been in 1956 so this was a novel ahead of its time in forcing the reader to confront these issues. Notwithstanding Eve Garnett’s ground breaking books in the late 1930s, most books about (or for) children in the mid 1950s still focused on boarding schools and middle class escapism.

Rumer Godden mercifully grants us a happy ending which is very neat and satisfying but it’s a near thing. It wouldn’t have been thus for many real children in this position.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q Rauf

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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