‘Barty and I were very happy in the Fens. We had two children — boys. They were both killed in the Great War — the First World War they call it now.’ Mrs Bartholomew did not cry, because she had done all her crying for that so long ago.
from Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (first published 1958)
And, oh, how I cried as I tried to read these lines from the final chapter of Tom’s Midnight Garden to T and the Moose outside our tent last summer. Twice last year I was undone by the ubiquity of loss in that generation — the loss of husbands, sons, brothers. A loss so catastrophic that it permeates children’s literature in such a matter-of-fact way. In The Borrowers, it is Mrs May who tells Kate about the tiny people who live in houses and ‘borrow’ things from humans. But it was Mrs May’s younger brother who met Pod and Arrietty and told her about them,
‘He was such a tease. He told us so many things — my sister and me — impossible things. He was killed,’ she added gently, ‘many years ago now, on the North-West Frontier. He became colonel of his regiment. He died what they call ‘a hero’s death’…’
‘Was he your only brother?’
‘Yes, and he was our little brother. I think that was why’ — she thought for a moment, still smiling to herself — ‘yes, why he told us such impossible stories, such strange imaginings[…]’
It puzzled me, to start with, why Mary Norton had chosen to frame her story with the foreshadowed death of its child hero (though, to the Borrowers, ‘the Boy’ is an ambiguous character — it is his interference that leads to them having to leave the house that has always been their home for the great and uncertain world beyond). But it was such a small line that it seemed to simply wash over my young audience, even as I stumbled on it. Thinking it over, I can see it lends mystery — Mrs May remains uncertain about whether her brother was telling the truth about the Borrowers or whether he was just teasing her — but it also points to the tragic commonness of such a loss. (It’s not clear that Mrs May’s brother does die in the First World War: he could have been killed at the North-West Frontier at any time during the British Raj.)
When we light our candle this evening I will be thinking of the past, yes, but also the present — loss piled on loss, conflict on conflict, unbearable, unimaginable suffering. It seems such a small thing to do — with my own three children safe in their beds in a world they can’t imagine could ever fall apart — but at least it is something.
We’re two books into the Borrowers series, and they make the perfect read-alouds for us at the moment. The language is old fashioned and sometimes obscure enough that T struggles with them alone, but the stories are so full of adventure that the Moose can follow them too. I’ve also introduced them to this BBC gem from my own childhood.