The Man Who Loved Children
"As Randall Jarrell says in his brilliant introduction, "If all mankind had been reared in orphan asylums for a thousand years, it could learn to have families again by reading The Man Who Loved Children." Or perhaps how not to have them: for Sam and Henny are hardly model parents. They are seldom on speaking terms, communicating mostly through notes or through the children.
"Sam and his egomania, his image of himself as "Sam the Bold", his indecent prying, his insane energy, his constant emotional and occasional physical bullying; Henny and her bouts of self-pity, violent abuse of Sam, a squalid affair, and dishonest ways with money govern the traumatic life of the Pollit family.
"The effect of all this on the children - particularly on the gauche, adolescent Louie and the worldly-wise Ernie - is revealed with great power, compassion and understanding. The climax is horrifying and unforgettable; but there are also many scenes of wild comedy and a rich gallery of minor characters."
"It is a novel, a real novel ... There is a tough, unkillable acceptance of life in it ... this book leaves one, as all major writing does, with the sense that, in the end, no human action is trivial." - John Wain, Observer
A man on a park bench has a lonely final look, as if to say: "Reduce humanity to its ultimate particles and you end here; beyond this single separate being you cannot go." But if you look back into his life you cannot help seeing that he is separated off, not separate-is a later, singular stage of an earlier plural being. All the tongues of men were baby-talk to begin with: go back far enough and which of us knew where he ended and Mother and Father and Brother and Sister began? The singular subject in its objective universe has evolved from that original composite entity-half-subjective, half-objective, having its own ways and laws and language, its own life and its own death - the family.
The Man Who Loved Children knows as few books have ever known-knows specifically, profoundly, exhaustively-what a family is: if all mankind had been reared in orphan asylums for a thousand years, it could learn to have families again by reading The Man Who Loved Children. Tolstoy said that "each unhappy family is unhappy in a way of its own-" a way that it calls hap- piness; the Pollits, a very unhappy family, are unhappy in a way almost unbelievably their own. And yet as we read we keep thinking: "How can anything so completely itself, so completely different from me and mine, be, somehow, me and mine?" The book has an almost frightening power of remembrance; and so much of our earlier life is repressed, forgotten, both in the books we read and the memories we have, that this seems friendly of the book, even when what it reminds us of is terrible. A poem says, "O to be a child again, just for tonight!" As you read The Man Who loved Children it is strange to have the wish come true.
All the June Saturday afternoon Sam Pollit's children were on the lookout for him as they skated round the dirt sidewalks and seamed old asphalt of R Street and Reservoir Road that bounded the deep-grassed acres of Tohoga House, their home. They were not usually allowed to run helter-skelter about the streets, but Sam was out late with the naturalists looking for lizards and salamanders round the Potomac bluffs, Henrietta, their mother, was in town, Bonnie, their youthful aunt and general servant, had her afternoon off, and they were being minded by Louisa, their half sister, eleven and a half years old, the eldest of their brood. Strict and anxious when their parents were at home, Louisa when left in sole command was benevolent, liking to hear their shouts from a distance while she lay on her belly, reading, at the top of the orchard, or ambled, woolgathering, about the house.
The sun dropped between reefs of cloud into the Virginia woods a rain frog rattled and the air grew damp. Mother coming home from the Wisconsin Avenue car, with parcels, was seen from various corners by the perspiring young ones, who rushed to meet her, chirring on their skates, and who convoyed her home, doing figures round her, weaving and blowing about her or holding to her skirt, and merry, in spite of her decorous irritations.
From the Angus and Robertson hardback edition, 1979.
This page and its contents are copyright © 2003 by Perry Middlemiss, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.Return to Christina Stead page.
Last modified: September 15, 2003.