Wednesday, June 08, 2011
Book review: The Little White Bird
The Little White Bird is but one book in an entire catalog of works (the most famous of which is the stage play, Peter Pan) by J. M. Barrie. Barrie was a prolific and respected English writer from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was my first encounter with the iconic author.
The Little White Bird is the story of a Victorian era blue-blooded retired military officer, Captain W----, who takes a working class family under his wing. Captain W----, a decorated war veteran, is middle-aged, unmarried, and childless; he is an observer of life, rather than a participant. From the window of his study, he watches a young working-class woman, Mary A----, as she is courted by and then married to her lover, a young painter with few prospects. Captain W----, perhaps seeing a more innocent (pre-war) version of himself in the young man, anonymously assists the couple. Eventually, Mary and her husband have a child, David. Captain W---- falls in love with the boy who supplants imaginary Timothy, the son whom the Captain will never have. Eventually, the Captain's identity is discovered by Mary, who approves of his interest in her child. Much of the novel is a recounting of the adventures the man and the boy have in Kensington Gardens in London.
The novel offers a window into Victorian England, where social class defined human interactions. Although it is clear that Captain W---- loves Mary and her young family, he is bound by his superior class to treat them with disdain and contempt. Outwardly, at least. It's an alien concept for Americans generally, and perhaps most especially for those of us who live on the egalitarian West Coast. (And, without giving away the ending, Captain W---- has a strange breakthrough in the last few pages of the novel.)
The tone of the narrative reminded me very much of another writer from the same era, Rudyard Kipling. Formal and detached, but not without humor or compassion. This is the King's English, after all. Also, the sentiments expressed by the author, his heart-break at the impermanence of childhood and innocence, reminded me of some of the writing of J D Salinger.
Whatever it may reveal about our current age, this novel makes apparent how times have changed. The idea of a mother approving of a middle-aged bachelor's curious interest in her son seems incredible. Being a scion of the times, I found that I was uneasy with the relationship between the Captain and David. (And let's not forget Dr. Dodgson, eh?)
But, suspending my modern-day squeamishness, the story was touching. I had the feeling that the protagonist (no doubt, modeled on the author himself) was a gentle soul with a kind heart.
I enjoyed the book. Like all good books, it reveals truths that are sometimes hard to face.