“The Garden Committee had met to discuss the earth; not the whole earth, the terrestrial globe, but the bit of it that had been stolen from the Gardens in the Square.”
So begins An Episode of Sparrows. It might make you cry. But this book is about hope and about things coming to an almost fairy godmother conclusion.
This is post WWII bombed out London. Elegant Mortimer Square has lost its polish to the ravages of war. Angela and Olivia Chesney, two sisters, live on Mortimer Square which borders much poorer Catford Street, full of large families with boisterous children. Angela categorizes them as hoodlums and Olivia sees them as sparrows. The gardens in Mortimer Square are off limits to the children of Catford Street. Olivia can’t fathom why they shouldn’t enjoy the garden. Angela, the Garden Committee’s chief gun, is vigilant and of the opposite opinion.
Ten year old Lovejoy Mason is one of the children of Catford Street. Her mother, a “coloratura” has left her in the care of Vincent Combie and his wife Ettie. All the characters in An Episode of Sparrows have a backstory that’s a little bit heartbreaking. Vincent dreams of running a restaurant of great quality but Catford Street just doesn’t draw the clientele he wishes for.
“Our linen must be white and glossy, starched, perfectly white and glossy.”
Ettie sighs and strives against all odds to keep it so in the dirty air of London.
Sparkey, an asthmatic five year old, longs to be in a gang with the big boys. Tip Malone, thirteen, is the soft-hearted leader of the gang. He’s part of the nine children Malone family – all handsome, curly haired, blue eyed Irish.
Lovejoy’s mother barely sends enough money for necessities and nothing else.
“I can’t go without everything, forever,” said Lovejoy.
So the little girl has gotten very good at taking, not money which she thought wrong, but any other small thing. She snatches a packet from Sparkey who will never forgive her. Sadly she’s disappointed it’s only seeds – Cornflower (Cyanus minor). The directions say to sow in good garden soil in March or April. That’s now, she thinks. But what is good garden soil? She asks everyone she knows.
“But under everything,” Tip was to argue, “under everything’s dirt.” Tip called earth “dirt”. “Under the houses and pavements and the road, there’s dirt.”
Thinking about the cornflowers made Lovejoy forget a little that her mother wasn’t coming to visit.
Missing her mother, Lovejoy searches for earth, rich earth to make a garden grow. Lovejoy’s story is a modern version of Mary Lennox of The Secret Garden. She’s like Liesel in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. She covets a garden the way Liesel covets books.
The bombed out sites, especially the one where the Catholic Church once stood, were perfect for growing a garden, hidden by boulders and hard to climb into. All they needed was good earth like the earth in the Gardens in the Square. Neither Tip nor Lovejoy nor Sparkey thought taking earth was stealing. Doesn’t earth belong to everyone?
In the author’s preface, Godden talks about how she came upon the idea for An Episode of Sparrows when she moved back to London just after the war. She was surprised by all the weed flowers that sprung up in the rubble of the bomb sites.
“But what really planted the seed was when that summer I had my window boxes filled by a jobbing gardener; they were my only garden and looked fresh, as pretty as the house in that rather squalid mews. A few days later I had a call from two ladies who lived in the square. “Not a social call,” they told me because, did I know, that the earth in my window boxes had been stolen from the gardens in the square? It was the first time I knew that earth could be stolen. The elder of the two ladies, who wore a hat with blue feather wings, spoke those, to me, memorable words. “If you want earth you can buy it from the Army and Navy Stores, seven shillings and sixpence the carton.”
Bless those two women. They may never have known they sowed the seed of a beautiful novel.