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.


Jcarnini said...

Thanks Dade for sharing about this book, I remember somethings about it....probably more from the movie with Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. But also Peter Pan was my favorite book when I was a kid. I would read from it every night and sleep with it under my pillow(under my pillow was always very crowded their was the book my rosary and my holy water bottle, in case the devil came in my room, which of course the Nuns reminded us everyday that would happen because we were bad!!!!) But back to Peter Pan I always wanted to be able to fly and I never wanted to grow-up. I think since Gino came into our lives I have been able to recapture the latter a little bit.
Love and Light, Jeanne

Dan Binmore said...

It is a sadness that in the modern world a relationship between a child and a non-related adult is now always treated with great suspicion, a suspicion based on fear. While I don't have any children I have great moments with the children of my friends as they retaught me how to pretend, and then I taught them suddenly remembered imaginings from my childhood. If only we adults could manage to play pretend without needing the prodding of a child.

Pserean Pshaw said...

Hi, Ridwan very kindly sent me a link to your post:)
J.M.Barrie was wonderful, wasn't he? I think he had that innate childishness that- is often eroded as we grow up, and gets replaced with ennui.
I've only ever read two of his plays- but you can see that magic so clearly.
Thanks for adding to my reading list!