An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden occupies some middle ground between children’s literature and literature for grown-ups. I read it for the first time last year and now I’m reading it aloud to my nine-year-old daughter. Like Rumer Godden’s books for the younger set, it reads aloud very well. Its plot structure too is very reminiscent of Fu-Dog and The Kitchen Madonna: a quest, undertaken by strong-willed and independent children. As a child, I found books in which young protagonists give up on their goals extremely disappointing. I also found resolutions brought about by adults stepping in less than satisfying. In Rumer Godden’s books, adults are important in children’s lives and interdependence is a prominent theme but the children do a lot of thinking and planning and the lion’s share of accomplishing their goals themselves.
The rather simple basic underlying structure of a quest that An Episode of Sparrows shares with the other two books mentioned above becomes a rich and strange thing as Rumer Godden works her distinctive storytelling magic. Interleaved with the omniscient narration are comments from various characters, shining a multifarious light on the events of the story, from a spectrum of perspectives. It is a kind of polyphony, though much more primitive than anything in Dostoyevsky. The quest becomes the occasion to unfold a detailed world, teeming with sensory detail, peopled with a variety of types. In An Episode of Sparrows, the world is the world of the Street, a London row which nuns “with quiet skirts and noisy beads” share with crazy cat ladies, where a mover-and-shaker social worker type can meet her match in a Irish mama bear — and where the secret lives of children appear in their full magnitude.
An Episode of Sparrows can be compared not only to some of Godden’s children stories but to the consummate classic The Secret Garden. The echoes and allusions, the analogies are too many and too pronounced to be accidental. It is The Secret Garden re-imagined, the urban Secret Garden. Lovejoy is another Mary Lennox, a vulnerable heart and powerful determination masked by a sullen exterior. Tip is another Dickon, confident and generous, though less simply good. Even Ben Weatherstaff has his counterpart in the slow-spoken gardening guru Mr. Isibister.
A slightly whimsical supernatural thread weaves through the novel too as the virtually motherless Lovejoy is drawn into the radius of the warm love of the Blessed Mother and the Catholic Church. The book gives us a vision of Our Lady’s prayer over derelict places and ruins and over the poor. She shines quietly in the background of the story, almost as she does in the Gospels, invisibly and serenely undoing knots for those who need her assistance desperately, even though they don’t deserve it.
Middle ground between children’s and general literature? There are certainly elements in Lovejoy’s life that no child should have to deal with but many children do. I’ve found it prudent to skip a couple paragraphs in my reading aloud. While this is clearly a novel intended as general literature, something about Rumer Godden’s writing in general, and in this book more than others, speaks to the inner child, to a naive experience of the color and texture of the world, that can be re-awakened in us all.