Casualties of War: Saplings

Noel Streatfeild, Saplings (1945)

SaplingsFor fans of Noel Streatfeild’s children’s fiction, encountering her adult novel Saplings can be rather unsettling. We start out with a typical Streatfeild British family — two boys, two girls, of varying temperaments and characters — but instead of working out their talents and foibles in a heartwarming, positive way, they slowly unravel as their world is turned upside down by conflict and loss. The adult world reveals its sordid side, with glimpses of sex and addiction that begin to seep into the sacred precincts of childhood. We are left with uncertainty as to the children’s fate, and the ending, though not entirely tragic, is not a happy one.

I was not averse to seeing Streatfeild veer out of her cheery, uplifting mode, much as I’ve always loved her books (particularly the ones about actors and dancers). But although Saplings had moments of brilliance in its portrayal of the psychological effects of child abandonment and neglect, I was left with an oddly unfinished feeling. Streatfeild’s laconic writing style was sometimes effectively unsentimental, but sometimes blunt to the point of nullity, as when two characters look at each other and “know they are in love”. She seemed to be trying to do too many things at once, entering into the minds of both child and adult characters but not penetrating either deeply enough.

I was also struck that although the jacket copy emphasizes this as a novel that shows the devastating effects of war on children, the destruction of the family comes about not through war (something else could have caused a similar trauma), but through the selfishness and narcissism of the children’s mother. Evacuation isn’t even necessary for them to be separated from her, as she shuffles them off to boarding school as fast as possible so she can pursue her own proclivities. Her need of them as ornaments and reinforcements for her own self-image is sharply portrayed, forming a devastating, disturbing portrait of a woman utterly without self-knowledge. She doesn’t really mean to harm her children, but does so through her lack of understanding of how her actions affect others, her inability to truly care about anyone other than herself.

Members of a privileged class, the children remain somewhat elevated above the worst deprivations of wartime, and certainly far above what children on the continent were suffering. I found them quite unlikeably spoiled at times, as they threw fits about trivial things like having to sleep in a different room than they were used to or having to share a desk with another child in an overcrowded school. But such “poor little rich child” problems were ultimately signs of their deeply insecure, unstable foundation, their lack of real mother-love.

It’s a sad, bitter story, one I wish had ended differently — not necessarily in a happier way, but in stronger and less fragmented way. The characters still haunt me even as I’m frustrated by how they dissolve into sketchiness.

I am glad to have read this book even if I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. It casts light on a side of Streatfeild’s writing life of which I would otherwise have remained ignorant, and which brings an interesting dimension to her sometimes one-sided tendencies. It also brings an unusual degree of insight into children’s thoughts and feelings, though it was written at a time when these were not much regarded or understood. It’s always fascinating to see what books Persephone is bringing back, and I do think this one deserves its revival.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Forgotten classic


10 thoughts on “Casualties of War: Saplings

  1. This is very insightful commentary Lory.

    It is interesting that the characters in the book haunt you despite the fact that the book contains such shortcomings. I have had similar experiences with books that I had reservations about. At least with me, this feeling was related to the fact that I felt that I needed to know more about the characters.


    1. I did come to care about the child characters and wish for a better life for them. I hope in some fictional universe they find healing for the damage that was done.


  2. I actually really enjoyed this one – I agree that the children were at times spoiled but it reminded me more of deflection behaviour. As in, once in real life I worked with a child who had recently lost his mother. He was terribly brave about it and then howled when he lost the Viking mask he had made. A colleague thought he was being very spoiled but I felt that what we were seeing was him at his limit – coping with the loss of the mask was too much on top! And I agree that the mother was the true villain – but she reflected contemporary attitudes of all bets being off and rules set to one side. My review is here I think that Streatfeild was making some interesting points here and being a lot more provocative than in her usual material – I confess I was a fan! 🙂 Hope you’re having a great week.


    1. I did think that Streatfeild had some really interesting insights into how children respond to misguided and neglectful parenting, especially for 1945. And it was provocative, for sure. I just thought the narrative threads unraveled somewhat at the end.


  3. I know this is a dark version of some of Streatfeild’s later work, and I do truly feel confident that I’ll prefer her more cheerful books. But I do want to read Saplings at some point. Imma just ask my library to order it. I’ve been meaning to for ages anyway.

    (Bother! I just tried, and then alas the recommending purchases form at my library is unavailable cause it’s the end of the year. Bother bother bother.)


    1. Oh drat. Make it a New Year’s resolution to try again early in January? It is rather a wintry sort of book, even though the opening scene is at a beach.


  4. I really liked Saplings. I cried a couple of times, like when the grandfather finally breaks through the one child’s tormented thoughts. For me, I didn’t find the children as spoiled overall, though they each had their moments. I felt like the one child who had to move to another room – it was less about the room, and all about the many other changes happening in her life. That was my take on it anyway. The mother was pretty awful though, as you describe.

    I’ve never read any of Streatfeild’s other books, so I had no particular expectations for the tone. I think I knew it was a rather sad book though.


    1. I agree, when the children had tantrums they were not really about the supposed “cause” — it was the deeper lack of attachment and security that disturbed them. Being children, of course, they were not able to consciously realize and articulate that. Streatfeild’s insight into the psychology of childhood was really quite remarkable, especially for the time, and I did appreciate that aspect of the book.


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