In April I read two books back to back that I assumed would be vastly different. I was surprised by how much the books had in common. The books in question are Saplings by Noel Streatfeild and Room by Emma Donoghue. I read Saplings first and the book haunted me through my entire reading of Room.
First, some background on these seemingly disparate books. Saplings was published in 1945 and concerns the four Wiltshire children: Laurel, Tony, Kim, and Tuesday. The Wiltshires — Alex and Lena — are financial comfortable and assisted with the child rearing by Nanny and a governess — Ruth. Alex is certainly the more “hands on” parent and Lena sees her identity primarily as a wife, but she does love her children. All is well until World War II when Alex is killed during a shell attack in London. This tragic event is the catalyst for the demise of the happy family. The novel is primarily told from the perspective of the children and it is quite illuminating to see war and “grown-up” problems from a child’s perspective.
Room is a 2010 short-listed Man Booker novel by Emma Donoghue. This story is about Jack — a five year old boy who lives in captivity with his Ma. Kidnapped as a college student, Ma has been kept in an 11×11 shed by her kidnapper, Old Nick. Jack is the product of sexual assault, but nevertheless Jack is the one source of hope and joy for Ma. This book details their lives imprisoned in the shed and what happens after their escape.
On the surface, these books seem very dissimilar, but — in truth — the books seem to compliment each other. Both novels are told from a child’s perspective and both novels are filled with well-meaning, but blundering adults. The Wiltshire children are propelled towards misery by the errant actions of adults. For example, Laurel is removed from a school she adored because Lena thinks that school has made her moody (in truth it is her mother’s behavior after her father’s death) and Tony is suffering from PTSD while the adults worry that he is merely being a rebel. In Room, Jack views his prison as home and actually has his mother’s full attention and comfort; once he is free he is overwhelmed by the real world and his mother is interacting with other people and (albeit unintentionally) not giving him the same amount of attention Jack is used to. The tiny shed represents comfort and the free world leads him to feel alienated. All so, the relatives that show-up are not prepared for introducing a child to the world (a simple trip to buy a birthday gift proves disastrous).
Another common thread in Saplings and Room — adults think that they know everything about children and children are oblivious to the blunders of adults. The adults in Saplings are convinced that they understand how children grieve and end up alienating the Wiltshire children further. In Room, the adults forget that the concepts of freedom, space, individuality, reality, and imagination are lost on young Jack. He spends most of the novel in confusion and unsure of how to act in the real world. The children of both novels are continually dismayed by the “badness” of some adults. The Wiltshire children know of their mother’s problems after Alex’s death, they know they are different, they know that war is ugly and terrible and the false reassurances of adults ring hollow. They recognize that bad choices by adults are the reason they suffer. Jack doesn’t understand why adults can be hurtful. Why would anyone want to hurt his ma? Laurel best summed up the problem with adults:
I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve not been told things wrong. I mean, we’re told that children behave badly and grown-ups are always right. I wonder if we shan’t find that grown-ups do worse things than children (240).”
Saplings and Room are beautifully crafted novels that truly capture the voice and perspective of children. Still, weeks later, I find myself thinking about both books and wondering about how my children view the world and their mother.