Children’s books and church: 3 The Sparrow Child

Does our childhood reading influence our faith?

The Sparrow Child by Meriol Trevor (first published 1958)

The church I grew up in offered me only a two-dimensional Christianity: I was there to learn and attend services (worship seems too strong a word for what I was actually doing.)

Luckily, I had books to fill the gaps. 

Books added depth and excitement to what I experienced in church; they told stories of encounters with an active and mysterious God and encouraged me to think and wonder and make connections.  As an adult I realise how much they framed my theology – and still do.      

Recently a comment on Twitter has made me think about the relationship of light and dark.  “How does it feel,” they asked in the context of Black Lives Matter “if dark is always portrayed as evil and light is always shown as good?”

And I am instantly taken back to this:

“Perhaps there is a heavenly darkness as well as a heavenly light.  There would be nothing dreadful in that night.  Perhaps you could call it rest, and the brightness energy and delight. Or that day would be speech, as the poet in the psalm says, and the night wisdom. Or we could even call the light in heaven, knowledge and the darkness, love.”

The Sparrow Child, Meriol Trevor 1958

I find Meriol Trevor a very uneven writer.  Many of her books (especially her adult romances) are formulaic with little depth or characterisation.  She was a convert to Roman Catholicism and her uncritical admiration of John Henry Newman tends to overwhelm several of her novels for both children and adults.    

But The Sparrow Child and The Rose Round (for children) and A Narrow Place (for adults) are in a different category.

In The Sparrow Child thirteen year old Philip is sent to visit his unknown adult cousins at their old house in Cornwall, while his mother recovers from her illness.  Here he meets Jenny, the housekeeper’s daughter and is later joined by his difficult cousin Mirabel, whom he has never met.  There is a search for a lost chalice (found) and a fight to stop an area of wasteland being turned into an atomic station (successful).  Philip learns to overcome many of his fears.   

So far so predictable.  But the main theme of the book is about the healing of relationships.  Philip’s cousin Carey is unable to walk as the result of an accident.  He was once in love with Mirabel’s mother, who left him to marry his stepbrother Rex, Arnold’s son.  (Yes, it’s complicated!) Growing up, Carey was the one who made a stand against his stepfather’s bullying, both for himself and his brother and also for Rex, Arnold’s own son.  Angry, unhappy Mirabel becomes a pawn in a fight for her affections that both Carey and Arnold intend to win.

Unusually in children’s books, The Sparrow Child shows adult development and adult healing of relationships.  The adults have no more arrived than the children.  It is Carey who has to turn back towards Arnold and ask for forgiveness before the story can be resolved for a happy ending.  His family are baffled as it seems clear to them that Arnold is far more to blame for the situation than Carey. But:

‘And suddenly Philip saw, and said to himself, “It’s our own dragons we must worry about, not other people’s.”  Carey could not make Arnold be sorry, but he could be sorry himself, and that in turn made the beginning of a change in Arnold’s mind.’   

I return to this phrase whenever I need to remind myself that it is my own dragons, rather than other people’s, that I need to be concerned about. 

The Sparrow Child is rich in mysticism and symbol.  Philip dreams of the Grail, the destruction of the house and its resurrection and looks to his cousins for understanding and interpretation.

Is the missing chalice the Grail, the holy cup used at the Last Supper, that will bring both physical and spiritual healing? 

“Ah but what is the Grail?” says old Joseph Thorne, Carey’s grandfather who is described as ‘lying between the two worlds of time and eternity and all his life he’s been more in the great world than this.’

“It is not the cup, however old, however sacred.  It is what the cup carries to us.”

All through The Sparrow Child there are these short passages that shaped my theological thinking.  But perhaps it is this one that most defines my own faith:

‘Philip gazed at the tabernacle, with the small flame burning in the silver lamp before it.

“Why does our Lord always hide?” he said at last.

“I don’t think it is that He hides,” said Carey slowly.  “I think it’s that we don’t expect Him to be where He is.  People thought of the divine Saviour as an emperor descending from heaven, but He came into the world the way we all come and lived as we all live. They expected Him to rule them like a King but instead He gave Himself up to be executed like a slave.  Even now people expect to find Him organising the ideal state on earth but instead He is giving himself as bread to feed those who are hungry for love.  He is hidden, but it is we who hide Him.  We are blind people: it takes Him a long time to open our eyes.” ’  

Children’s books and church: 2 Heidi

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Does our childhood reading influence our faith?

Heidi by Johanna Spyri (first published 1880) Contains spoilers 

Heidi is an intentionally Christian book, which is interesting as Johanna Spyri’s own deepest belief seems to be that only the mountains can offer healing and wholeness. By contrast the city is sickly and soul destroying.

Both the depressed doctor and the invalid Clara are cured by their visit to the mountains while Heidi’s own health becomes precarious when she is away from them.   This isn’t a Biblical view: Jesus went into the mountains to pray but he wept over Jerusalem.  Much of the gospel action takes place there and the Bible ends with the revelation of the heavenly city.

Despite this belief in the effect of the mountains, it is Grandmamma, Clara’s grandmother, who has the most thought through faith in the book and she is very much a city person.  The old blind grandmother who lives in the mountains has faith, but her worries get in the way. She is in a permanent state of panic that Heidi will be taken away from her. Heidi, rather than God, is at the centre of her world.

As a child I took Grandmamma’s instructions about faith on trust.  Now I am not so sure.  In Frankfurt she tells Heidi that God always wants the best for us and that if we wait, he will answer our prayers. We will look back and realise that his way has worked out much better for us than our own original choices.  This becomes Heidi’s own experience: an earlier return to the mountains would not have brought the same benefits (friendship and gifts for the blind grandmother) as her later return does. But this theology has its drawbacks:

“But what if God Himself has sent the sorrow?” asks the doctor, whose daughter has died.  Heidi’s response that if we have patience, “something will turn up and we will see quite clearly that all the time it was all for the best” doesn’t quite work.  I cannot believe that such things as the neonatal deaths of our twins were in my best interests all along. I can’t believe it was in their best interests either.  They were real people with real lives, not just a walk on part in mine.  Eternity may prove me wrong but until then it is in my box “awaiting further light”.

In all fairness, Johanna Spyri does acknowledge this problem:

“You see Heidi, when someone has a great grief he cannot enjoy anything lovely, and beauty, like this around us, only makes him more sad…” the doctor responds.

The author doesn’t seem to have any real answers to this (who has?) except for Heidi to recite one of the blind grandmother’s favourite hymns.  Towards the end of the book she reverts to the simple God knows best.  Heidi tells Clara:

“… we must say then (to God) ‘Now I know, dear Father, that you have something better in mind and I am glad that you will make it all right in the end.’”

Often things are not “all right in the end”.  And yet, paradoxically, I continue to pray “Thy will be done” and mean it most of the time.

Although Grandmamma never misses an opportunity to share her theology, she does understand people.  I have always felt that Peter had a raw deal.  Heidi’s attention is always centred on the person she perceives as needing her most and Peter rarely makes it to the front of the queue.  (Even when she teaches him to read it is so that he can read hymns to his blind grandmother rather than for his own benefit!)

It is not surprising that Peter is jealous of Clara and pushes her wheelchair down the mountain.  Grandmamma talks to him about his conscience, and instead of punishing him rewards him.  Even as a child, I was glad someone gave him some attention.

I first came across Heidi at about five or six years old and have re-read it many times since.  How do I discern how it shaped my faith as a child?  I think the way to do this is to look at what has stayed in my memory.

Firstly, the mountain pastures.  Once the children reach them, they stop there.  It is a place to be and to wonder, rather than a doing place.  Here there is that sense of timelessness and peace, the lack of interruption that I needed as a child and still do.

Heidi’s exile in Frankfurt also made a strong impression on me.  In the city the inner kingdom is stifled and there is nothing in the sterile streets to bring Heidi close to what she has lost. Even the wind in the trees turns out to be carriages rumbling by.  I found Clara a more interesting character than Heidi (she has far more sense of humour!) but in Frankfurt I identified with Heidi, exiled from Eden.

But more than anything else I took away the idea that sin is turning away from God and that it is possible to turn back and be welcomed.  Although the Alm Uncle’s wrongdoings are mentioned at the beginning of the book (gambling and drinking) it is the way he has chosen to live, at outs with God and people that is wrong.  It is not the counting and classifying of sins that matters but what you turn towards.

The innocent child who redeems the hardened old sinner is a recurring theme in fiction, but this passed me by.  It was the story that mattered, the story that Heidi shared with the old man that spoke to him.  Looking down on the sleeping child, the old man repeats the words of the younger son:

“Father I have sinned against Heaven and in Thy sight and am not worthy to be called Thy son.”

It is this image and these words that have stayed with me.

Children’s books and church: 1 Milly Molly Mandy

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Does our childhood reading influence our faith?

As a small child, growing up in 1950s suburbia, Milly Molly Mandy books were the first ones that become part of my internal world. There were other books I liked, but these I loved.

Written 30 years earlier by Joyce Lancaster Brisley, these books described a world I didn’t know, but one I longed for.  For Milly Molly Mandy’s world appears totally safe.  Within its boundaries she is free to explore and have adventures.  The reader knows that nothing is going to go seriously wrong.

In theory my world should have been as secure as hers.  I had two parents, four grandparents, a house and garden, friends and a school that I mostly enjoyed.  But I was an anxious child.  I had my bed pushed up against the wall so nothing could get behind me in the night and I worried endlessly about the things I wished I hadn’t done – getting told off for jumping on the chairs or saying “Hello Old Thornsy!” to the sarcastic teacher.  (My father used to call him that – what possessed me as a small mousy child to try it out on him I will never know.)

My world was based on the same premise as Milly Molly Mandy’s: “Not in front of the children.”  The adults endeavour to hide their concerns and worries from the children. Milly Molly Mandy accepts her world, as small children do, as being how the world is.  There is no need for difficult questions.

But this is a safe world without God.  As a child I knew only the first three books, and God does not appear.  Church is mentioned only once – when Milly Molly Mandy visits Mrs Hooker in town.  This safe world has been created for the child by the adults in her life and they have been completely successful.

This is unsurprising when you remember that Joyce Lancaster Brisley originally wrote these stories for the Christian Science monitor, an organisation that was unlikely to consider churchgoing desirable.

However, the church is shown on the map at the beginning of each book.  It must have dominated the view for everyone who went out of the front gate of the nice white cottage with the thatched roof. Milly Molly Mandy went past it every time she and Susan took the short cut to school.

The events that give markers to village life are not that dissimilar to the ones that take place in villages now – the fete, the concert with local talent, the flower and produce show, carol singing. But today many of those events are organised on behalf of the church.  Surely this would have been the case in the 1920s?

Re-reading these books as an adult I can see that there are hints of a much darker world than the one I longed for as a child.

Money worries are mentioned – it is clear that pennies are rare and need careful thought before spending; there is no extra money for trips to the sea or bicycles.  Milly Molly Mandy knows and understands these limitations but they do not bother her. Other families are in similar situations.

It is more striking that most of the children in the books are only children: Milly Molly Mandy, Billy Blunt, Milly next door, Jessamine, Bunchy.  Only Susan has a baby sister and even she does not arrive until halfway through Book 2.  Was it something in the water? Had Marie Stopes moved into the cottage next to Mr Critch the Thatcher?  Did none of them want more children?

Aunty and Uncle are childless.  Uncle is the adult most able to enter into the child’s world – how did he feel about not having his own child?  And what about Aunty?  What did she think about during that endless round of dusting and sewing?

Even more concerning is the number of children who lack parents.  Miss Muggins’ Jilly lives with her aunt. Bunchy lives with her grandmother, Timmy Biggs with his grandad. Jessamine from the Big House has only her mother.  We are never told what tragedies lie behind all these missing parents – though if the stories are set early in the 1920s we might guess at the first world war and Spanish influenza.  Milly Molly Mandy’s world is not as safe as it first appears.

I read Milly Molly Mandy Again (Book 4) as an adult – and found that the author’s attitude to church and God had changed dramatically.  Milly Molly Mandy goes to harvest festival and the blacksmith’s wedding in the church and “Vicar” gets a mention at harvest festival!  Milly Molly Mandy and her mother even have a conversation about God:  harvest festival is to give thanks to God.  God takes the thankfulness and the vicar gives the produce to the cottage hospital – it is a double giving.  The book ends with snowy weather; everyone except Grandma who does not like the cold (who can blame her!) goes to church just as if they have been doing so Sunday by Sunday since the books began.  This book was published in 1948, twenty years after the original.  Joyce Lancaster Brisley had lived through the depression and second world war since then – her views have had time to change and she, like us, is looking back with nostalgia.

Is it possible for my faith to have been influenced by Milly Molly Mandy when the books I knew had no references to God and only one mention of church?  A world in which adults are in control rather than God is the antithesis of Christian belief.  The Biblical story tells us what happens when adults believe themselves to be in control…  But I do not think I ever believed in adults’ ability to create a secure world for children, on their own so this passed me by.

I think I did take away the emphasis on looking carefully and appreciating the small things.  Milly Molly Mandy’s family show respect for everyone though this is most noticeable in Milly Molly Mandy Again when the village rallies around the Traveller family and bring their pots and pans to be mended.

We would be like apple trees without apples if we weren’t useful, says Mother, echoing the Protestant work ethic.  But I’m not sure I believed that either…  I certainly didn’t practice it!