Noel Streatfeild is better known for her children’s books (Ballet Shoes, Tennis Shoes, White Boots etc.) than for her adult writing, despite having written quite prolifically for adults – books that are now forgotten and out of print. So it was with my own fond memories of Ballet Shoes that I picked out the Persephone edition of Saplings from my local library with curiosity to see what Streatfeild’s ‘grown-up’ writing would be like.
Saplings is a story about the well-to-do Wiltshire family. It charts the effect of the Second World War on what begins as a seemingly happy family unit with an almost idyllic lifestyle, focussing mainly on the children in the family and how they come to terms with the changes that are inflicted upon them – evacuation, educational changes and grief and loss.
The central characters are the children. Streatfeild goes to quite remarkable lengths to convey the perspective of each child and really bring you into their thoughts and concerns.
There is Tony who really looks up to his Dad, and although one of the eldest children (perhaps partly because of that) is really the hardest hit by the situation. Throughout the main part of the book he retreats into himself as a result of a traumatic visit that he makes into London which leaves him unable to match reality to what he feels he has experienced.
Laurel, the elder sister is initially serious but happy in the glow of her father’s approval for being a ‘good all-rounder’ but struggles when she changes schools . Marked out by her mis-matched uniform, she hopes to prove herself best at something, but when she does find something to grasp on to, the teachers believe that she is behaving inappropriately.
The extrovert of the family is Kim who, although he initially suffers from Dad’s disapproval, actually weathers the situation the strongest of all the children. I really found Kim’s character interesting, as from the beginning of the book I found sympathy with him and the sense that Streatfeild was conveying the cracks already in the supposed ‘perfect’ family.
There is also Tuesday, the baby of the family who needs protection and senses the changes that are happening with such a painful sense of worry. Psychological concerns, as with Tony manifest themselves into the physical.
We also get a unique perspective on the children’s mother. Lena has been devoted her whole life to her husband and needs to be adored by him. She provides a happy home for the children, but as the war makes its impact on the family, Lena is pushed to her limits and doesn’t cope well. I felt so sorry for her and felt that Streatfeilds comments on female desire must have been quite unusually honest for the time.
The key theme of the book – nurturing of the children – is continuously highlighted through the metaphor of organic growth (which of course the title of the novel Saplings refers to), with comments from various perspectives about how the children are tended. The children’s former governess Ruth muses on how she grew up “All right but bruised” but what happened if the Wiltshires were more than just bruised;
“What happened if they grew mis-shapen?”
Another organic reference is in Streatfeild’s description of Laurel’s struggle with her adolescent body.
“Laurel was still small and childish looking for her age, but her body was deceptive. It housed a creature floundering in the mud and flowers of adolescence.”
Saplings is beautifully written. Streatfeild’s descriptions are wonderful – in the first few scenes at the beach, I felt that I could hear the sea, really see the children and the hazy glow, almost as if in my own memory. She paints such clear characters, that a few days after finishing the book they are all still vivid in my mind. Although the book has a central story, I did feel that it was more of a sketch and I do think you need to sort of settle into it rather than being in a rush. I will admit that at first didn’t find myself wanting to pick it up all the time but when I was reading it I became absorbed. I did feel that there were some slightly contrived parts in the novel but similarly I think that this reflects that the book was written for a purpose and to make the reader think about how children suffered during wartime, which it definitely achieves.
Overall I felt this was a very poignant and accomplished novel which while being very different to her children’s stories, demonstrates Streatfeild’s unique gift for inviting the reader to see life through the eyes of a child. Very interesting and thought-provoking.