Thursday, June 28, 2018

Flamingo Boy by Michael Morpurgo

When Vincent Montague was young, he had two pictures in his bedroom. One he painted in his Primary art class after his teacher, Miss Weatherly had them "paint a story". Vincent painted an "old traveller sitting on the steps of his gypsy caravan, h is piebald horse grazing the grass nearby" with a police care also in the painting. The inspiration for the painting was a story he had read in a book. The other painting was a picture by someone named "Vincent". It was of "four boats on a beach, with the sea and sky behind."

When he was older, Vincent discovered that the boat picture was painted by Vincent Van Gogh, "down by the sea, just a few miles from where he was living, in a town called Arles."  He learned from this book about Van Gogh from a bookstall in town. This created in Vincent a desire to see the places Van Gogh had visited and painted. 

It was at this same time, while studying for his six form exams in his family's home in Watford, that Vincent discovered a note taped to the back of the Van Gogh picture. The note was from his grandparents, dated January 277, 1964. It told him that they visited "this beach in the Camargue region in the south of France, where Vincent Van Gogh had gone when he painted this picture."

Because of the boat painting and the note, Vincent decided to leave Watford after completing his exams and "follow the bend in the road". During the summer following exams, Vincent travelled to the Camargue in the south of France. While walking on "a causeway with pink lakes on both sides" with "flamingos nearby, strolling languidly through the shallows" Vincent became very ill and collapsed. He felt himself being carried and awoke to find himself in a small cottage. He meets Lorenzo, the tall man who found him and Kezia Charbonneau, who tells Vincent that she and Lorenzo are like brother and sister but are also best friends.

Fishing Boats on the Beach at Sains-e Maries, June 1888.
Vincent learns that Lorenzo Sully doesn't speak much, that he likes only those people who are kind and that he loves the flamingos which he watches over and cares for. Kezia tells Vincent that he is "on a farm far out in the marshes,... a few kilometres down the road, along the canal from a little town called Aigues-Mortes."  When Vincent enquires as to how Kezia came to speak English so well, she tells him when he is sufficiently recovered she will tell him the story of how this came to be.

Gradually Vincent begins to recover, growing stronger from the rest, the delicious soups and crusty bread Kezia makes. Vincent also beings to understand Lorenzo more, how he speaks and his love of the flamingos. When he feels better, Vincent, in response to Kezia's questions, explains how he came to be wandering through the Camargue. This leads Kezia to begin to tell Vincent how she and Lorenzo who was known as Flamingo boy when he was little, met and how their lives became forever entwined. It is a story of friendship, trust and of mutual understanding. 


Award-winning British author, Michael Morpurgo was inspired to write Flamingo Boy because of his grandson autism. A trip to the Camargue in the South of France was the inspiration for both the setting and the idea of an autistic boy who couldn't relate well to others, but understood the world of animals. Morpurgo then set his novel during the occupation of France by the Germans and wove into it the painting by Vincent Van Gogh.  It is the main character and narrator, Vincent Montague's love of the painting that sends him on his journey at the age of eighteen to visit the Camargue and ultimately changes the course of his life.

Morpurgo employs two narrators, Vincent Montague who is narrating the story in the present about meeting Kezia and Lorenzo when he was eighteen years old in 1981, and Kezia Charbonneau who takes over the book's narration and relates the story of her youth during the 1940's in occupied France. Morpurgo uses Kezia's innocence of youth in her narrative to keep the horrors of the Holocaust and the discrimination of those who are different somewhat distant, almost impersonal, diminishing the emotional impact of the story. Kezia's mother warns her about the Germans in a general sort of way. "The Germans, they don't like Roma people, Kezia. I mean, more than most people they don't like us...They hate Jewish people too...Jewish people, Roma people -- the German's, the Milice, they want to be rid of us...And they hate children like Lorenzo too...Because he is different, Kezia --the same reason they hate us, and the Jews, because we are different."  But the terror of the German occupation is diminished both by the isolation of the Sully farm and by the kindness of the local German Caporal. 

Morpurgo uses the character of Caporal Willi Brenner, a teacher from Tubingen, Germany to demonstrate that not all German soldiers were Nazis. Many like Brenner were sometimes forced to fight against their will for the Third Reich. Brenner tells them that he was sent to Russia to fight, an experience so traumatic it turned his hair white and resulted in him losing toes due to frostbite. Brenner helps Kezia's family rebuild their carousel by bringing them wood which is scarce. He also helps both Kezia and Lorenzo's families by warning them about the Milice  and the Gestapo, by having his soldiers block the road to the Sully farm so as to protect Kezia's from being taken by the Milice.  Morpurgo often incorporates a sympathetic character in his novels to portray a more balanced approach, although the vast majority of German soldiers truly believed in what they were fighting for.

Flamingo Boy is classic Michael Morpurgo that most young readers, especially boys, will enjoy. Like most of Morpurgo's novels, the beautiful cover invites readers inside.Although Morpurgo delayed writing a novel that tackled the subject of autism because he felt he couldn't do it justice,  he's done a fine job here. Lorenzo is an endearing character whose unusual ways help both Kezia and Willi Brenner learn to trust. Morpurgo's descriptions of a boy for whom trust and loyalty are paramount and who loves the flamingos of the Camargue, provide readers with a better understanding how someone with autism encounters the world in a way that is refreshing.

Book Details:

Flamingo Boy b Michael Morpurgo
London, England: HarperCollins Children's Books      2018
288 pp.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Galen and the Gateway to Medicine by Jeanne Bendick

Jeanne Bendick was a well known author of many books, most of them focused on science. Jeanne was born in 1919 in New York City. Her career as an illustrator began while attending the Parsons School of Design. During this time she created illustrations for the children's magazine, Jack and Jill. After graduating in 1939, with the start of World War II, both Jeanne and  her husband became part of the war effort. She joined the American Woman's Voluntary Services while her husband enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force.

Jeanne wrote about many different topics with an appealing simplicity. "Jeanne Bendick had a remarkable ability through her straightforward writing and illustration to present complex scientific concepts in a form that was understandable by children." She was part of a group of three authors who wrote a science textbook for elementary school-aged children, Jeanne's last book, Herodotus and the Road to History was published in 2009 when she was ninety-one!! Jeanne was writing books on science at a time when there were few women in the science disciplines. Jeanne passed away on March 14, 2014 at the age of ninety-five.

Jeanne's book, Galen and the Gateway to Medicine traces the life and achievements of Galen, doctor to the Roman emperors. Galen was born in 129 AD in the Greek city of Pergamum during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. At the time of Galen's birth, Pergamum was a city within the Roman empire which included all of "the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, much of Europe (including England), part of Africa, the whole Middle East and some of Asia.

Little is known about Galen's family except that his father was Nicon, a famous engineer and architect who "was also a mathematician, a philosopher, an astronomer and a botanist." Nicon taught Galen during his early childhood and then he was sent to study in school as other Greek youths did. As a student, Galen studied history, philosophy, science and geometry. He especially loved math.

Galen's study of medicine began at the Temple of Aesculapius in Pergamum. Aesculapius was the Greek god of medicine, the first physician. After completing his studies at the Aesculapium, and with the death of his father, Galen decided to travel and study medical practices in other places. First he travelled to Smyrna where he studied with Pelops, a famous physician.  Then he continued on to Corinth and from there travelled to Alexandria, Egypt to the most famous medical school in the ancient world, The Museum. It was here that Galen developed many of his ideas about the human body and how it worked. Although some of his theories were very wrong, "Galen was trying to put together what he observed into a theory that explained how the parts of the human body functioned together as an interconnected system."

After nine years away, Galen returned to Pergamum where he worked as a physician to the gladiators in his home city. But his greatest adventures lay in the greatest city at that time, Rome. It was here Galen's reputation as a great physician came to be known throughout the Roman world and his work passed down through the centuries.


Galen and the Gateway to Medicine traces Galen's path to becoming the most respected physician of his time, one whose writings on the human body were considered definitive for the next 1500 years!

The author incorporates historical information into each phase of Galen's interesting life in a way that is engaging and yet informative for younger readers. For example, at the beginning of the book, readers are given a detailed picture of what life would have been like for a young Galen in second century Pergamum. Everything from what Galen might have had for breakfast to the foods found at the market, the types of houses in Pergamum to descriptions of the gymnasium and the baths. In describing Galen's studies in school in Pergamum, readers are introduced to many famous historical figures including Herodotus, Plato, and Aristotle.

When Galen attends medical school at the medical school at the Temple of Aesculapius Bendick describes how the Greeks treated illness, their beliefs about how the human body functioned and how the number four, an important number to the Greeks, influenced the way they viewed the natural world around them.

Bendick uses Galen's travels to Smyrna, Egypt and Rome to describe modes of transportation, the tools a physician might use in his practice, life in Alexandria - a great center of learning in Galen's time, and the gladiators in Rome. In describing Galen's life in Rome, Bendick covers many aspects of life in the Roman Empire in the second century including what it meant to practice medicine and pharmacology during this era. The author also cover's

The chapter "After Galen" explores the advances made in medicine, almost fifteen hundred years after Galen's death. Galen's ideas about the human body and illness were considered untouchable for generations, until the Middle Ages. Bendick explores what led to rethinking Galen's ideas in the Renaissance.

Galen and the Gateway to Medicine is a fascinating exploration into the history of medicine. Bendick writes in an easy style that flows naturally from one chapter to the next. The text is accompanied by the author's hand drawn maps and line illustrations and portraits. A worthwhile read for those interested in the history of science and medicine.

Book Details:

Galen and the Gateway to Medicine by Jeanne Bendick
Bathgate, ND: Bethlehem Books Ignatius Press   2002
131 pp.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli by Kyo Maclear & Julie Morstad

Bloom tells the story of fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli who was most famous for her creations during the interwar decades of 1920 and 1930's. Elsa was responsible for many significant contributions to fashion.

Elsa Luisa Maria Schiaparelli was born in Rome, in her family's home at the Palazzo Corsini, in 1890. She was born into a family with several accomplished intellectuals. Her father, Celestino Schiaparelli was a scholar whose research focused on the Middle Ages and who was Dean of the University of Rome. His brother, Elsa's uncle, Giovanni Schiaparelli discovered the canals on Mars. And a cousin of the Elsa's father and uncle, Ernesto Schiaparelli was the director of the Museo Egizio in Turin and a noted Egyptologist.

Elsa seemed destined from the beginning to be rebellious and unsettled.She had a rebellious childhood often playing pranks that had serious consequences. She attended the University of Rome, studying philosophy. During this time she wrote a book of poetry titled Arethusa, that her parents considered scandalous. Their response was to force her into a convent but she was able to leave after undertaking a hunger strike.  She left her family in Rome in 1913 and worked as a nanny in England to avoid marrying a Russian man whom her parents favoured. However, in London she became involved with Willem de Wendt, who also used the surname of de Kerlor and who was a sort of psychic involved in many different schemes including fortune telling. Many considered him a swindler. Elsa became engaged to him a day after meeting him! They married and were eventually forced to leave England, travelling to several countries before moving to America.

Elsa was eventually abandoned by de Kerlor in 1920, leaving her to care for their daughter, Maria Louisa Yvonne Radha whom she nicknamed Gogo. She returned to Paris in 1922 where she continued to receive support from her mother.  Although she had no training in the making of patterns and the sewing of clothing, Elsa began designing her own clothing. At first she made pieces for various clients. Her first big success came with hand knit sweaters featuring a black and white trompe l'oeil design. These took the fashion world by storm and Elsa's fashion career was off and running.

Elsa Schiaparelli from Vogue
In the 1930's Elsa Schiaparelli became involved with many famous artists who were part of the Surrealist movement. These included Salvatore Dali, Jean Cocteau, Alberto Giacometti and Leonor Fini. In collaboration with these artists, Elsa created some very distinct and creative pieces of clothing, including a dress with a lobster painted on by Dali, and an evening coat featuring what appears to be a vase of roses but also two profiles facing each other.

Elsa's contributions to fashion included the wedge shoe, the jumpsuit, paper clothes, transparent raincoats, specialty furs, the scarf dress, and coloured hosiery. She popularized pants and shoulder pads and her signature colour was a vibrant magenta which she named "Shocking". Many famous actresses of the period wore her clothes including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford.

Kyo Maclear presents a very simple version of Elsa Schiaparelli's life, bringing out some of the more interesting details that are sure to capture the interest of younger readers. Elsa's life is portrayed as that of a child not welcomed by her parents. Hoping for a boy, her parents had no name for her and gave her the name of a nurse. According to the story in Bloom, Elsa's sister Beatrice was the favourite of their parents who often referred to  Elsa as "Brutta". Although her life was complicated, Elsa persevered, overcoming "Mamma's harsh words and Pappa's judgement" and opened her first shop at the age of thirty-seven!  According to Maclear, Elsa's success is marred by the belief that her parents and Beatrice "will never approve of the path I have taken."

Throughout Bloom,  Maclear incorporates quotes from Elsa's autobiography, "Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli". This picture book employs brilliant magenta throughout - reminiscent of Elsa's favourite colour.  Elsa's story is brought to life by the colourful artwork of  Julie Morstad who utilized liquid watercolour, gouache, and pencil crayons to create the illustrations for Bloom.

There's no doubt Elsa Shiaparelli is a fashion designer largely forgotten by most today. But her influence can be found in much of the clothing considered fashionable by women. Bloom helps to remind readers, young and not-so-young about this famous Italian designer whose major competition was Coco Chanel!

The website, Kaleidoscope  Jewellry has an interesting post on Elsa Schiaparelli's twelve commandments for women featuring some photographs of her exquisite embroidery that are worth checking out.

Book Details:

Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad
New York: Tundra Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada Young Readers      2018

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Love and War by Melissa De La Cruz

Love and War picks up months after the marriage of Elizabeth Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton. It is April 1781 and the War of Independence is raging. Elizabeth is living at the Pastures, her parents' estate in Albany. Eliza, desperately missing Alexander, has been out with  her sisters, Angelica, Peggy, five year old Cornelia and eight-year-old Rensselaer picking a rich harvest of berries.

Eliza is impatient to move out of her parents home, wishing that she and Alex could set up their own home soon but they have been apart more than they have been together.  After their marriage he had rushed back to General Washington's headquarters. Before Alex leaves to report back to duty, Eliza's family have planned a goodbye party this evening.

Eliza's father General Philip Schuyler, her husband Alexander Hamilton,  as well as Angelica's husband John Barker Church have gone into town on business. In the back room of the Schuylkill Tavern the three men seal a munitions agreement where Church will "provide five hundred rifles, twenty barrels of powder, and two tons of shot to General Washington at Newburgh, and the Continental army will pay you one thousand pounds sterling."  When pressed, Alex reveals that he plans to ask General Washington for his own unit to command.

This greatly concerns his father-in-law who fears that Eliza will be left a widow. Alex tells General Schuyler and John that he intends to fight at Yorktown, Virginia where the British under General Cornwallis has gathered his troops. It is a matter of pride - he doesn't want to thought of as a coward who "spent the war in a paneled office with a pen in his hand and a warm fire at his back..."  When further pressed if he has revealed his ambitions to Eliza, Alex admits he has not done so yet.  Alex know this will break Eliza's heart but he is determined.

Meanwhile in the Schuyler mansion, Eliza pays her mother a visit in her parents' bedroom. Eliza's mother, Catherine is due anytime to deliver what will be her last child. Catherine asks Eliza to play host to the party in the evening, concerned that Angelica's connection to her husband who is British makes her unsuitable as host. The party turns out to be a large affair with many important persons in attendance including George Clinton, governor of New York State. Eliza is thrilled to be with Alex again. However her happiness is ruined when she learns from Governor Clinton that Alex is intending to lead a regiment into battle at Yorktown. Shocked and deeply hurt by her husband's lack of consideration, Eliza argues with Alex and they part for the evening unreconciled.  For two days the young couple are not together but when Alex takes his leave to travel to General Washington, Eliza shares her concerns while Alex apologizes profusely.

Alex is given the command by General Washington he so desperately wants and marches to Williamsburg with his soldiers. On the way he gets to know them better, by sharing in the hardships of the march.At Williamsburg, Washington and Count de Rochambeau, the French General, finalize their plans for the battle at Yorktown. During their discussions, Alex learns from his friend the Marquis de Lafayette, that Lafayette's aide, Major Jean-Joseph Sourbader de Gimat will lead Alex's troops - the First and Second New York and the Fifteenth Connecticut into battle. Dismayed and angered, Alex passionately makes his case for being allowed to lead his troops into battle and wins  General Washington consent. The patriots succeed in winning the battle ending the war for the colonies' independence from Great Britain.

Back in Albany, Catherine Schuyler gives birth to a healthy girl who is named after her mother. Three months after Catherine's birth, the Schuyler family is accosted by redcoats at the Pastures. Eliza confronts the men in a friendly manner, bluffing that her father is on his way back with twenty armed men and fortunately for the Schuyler family, they leave.

With the defeat of the English at Yorktown, Alex resigns his commission and  heads for home. As Washington and others begin working to build a new nation, Alex and Eliza commence their new life too, in New York City.  It will prove to be a trying time for the young couple both in their marriage and financially but it will also see Eliza cement her position in New York society and Alex establish his reputation as a lawyer of considerable skill.


Love and War is the second book of the trilogy by Melissa de la Cruz about the life of Alexander and Eliza Hamilton and continues their story a few months after their wedding. De la Cruz's version presents a sort of  'bare bones' version of Eliza and Alexander's early years of marriage in Part I which covers the year 1781 to the end of 1783. Eliza did not remain with her family in Albany but travelled to Windsor to be near Alex while he was part of General Washington's army. They also had their first child, Philip in January, 1782. De la Cruz admits in her Author's Note that she deliberately left out any children in the her retelling of the Hamilton's story. This is a fairly big departure from their real life story which de la Cruz uses to drive the increasing tension between Alex and Eliza.

In Part I the major tension between the couple is due to Alex's determination to fight in the War of Independence. Alex doesn't tell Eliza and when she learns of his intent, she is devastated. Confronted by Eliza, Alex tells her, "I am a soldier, Eliza, and a good one. Without a command, I would never rise in the ranks, never gain the respect and honor I am due,...Please, try to understand. I am no one, I am nothing. I did this for us."  However, Eliza retorts that this is something a man might do, "...But a husband -- never,"  While Eliza argues that Alex's sharp mind could be put to better use helping "the transition from colony to country", for Alex it is a matter of pride. "What kind of man would I be if I was content to send others to the front lines while I took shelter in the general's tent?"

Part II of Love and War deals with Eliza and Alex's early life in New York City where they moved in 1783 as he launches his law career. This part of the novel deviates significantly from the real life story of the Hamiltons. Well into their marriage, they are no longer newlyweds, and have no children. Alex's focus is on his law practice while Eliza remains at home, considering her china and silverware. Eventually she does become involved in New York society but finds that she and Alex have little time together. This is in stark contrast to her portrayal in the first part of the novel as a strong woman involved in society, who undertook "fund-raising and fabric drives that had made her simultaneously the most admired and most dreaded girl in the capital region." De la Cruz also has Eliza sitting for her portrait by Ralph Earl who is in debtors prison in 1784 but her portrait was not painted by Earl until 1787. By this time Eliza and Alex had three children.In  Part II, the focus is on an increasingly distracted and inattentive Alex who works late and often forgets to communicate with his wife. Eliza feels abandoned and finds herself beginning to notice the attentions of another man. Meanwhile, Alex heads off the attentions of a loyalist war widow he is representing in court. This sets the stage for the third novel which will likely feature the crisis in their marriage

Love and War, although rich in detail about life in colonial America, is in some ways a very modern retelling. In the spring of 1781, Eliza's views on children and marriage are presented.  Eliza considers her mother's twelve pregnancies, "astonishing", an attitude that would have been unlikely for that era as it was common for women to have many children, often well into their forties. Of those twelve pregnancies, seven children died, some before they could be baptized. Eliza wonders, "True, seven lived and provided their parents with all the joys that children can impart, but one death for every life? It seemed almost too high a price to pay."  This attitude was also probably uncharacteristic for a woman in this era as both maternal and infant death was an acknowledged part of life. There was very little understanding of how to prevent deaths in childbirth, which were not the result of too many pregnancies but to poor nutrition and lack of obstetrical knowledge. Doctors had limited means of intervention in the late 1700's.

Eliza also exhibits a very modern view of  motherhood, marriage and life. She wonders at the awesome responsibility of becoming a parent at a young age. It is likely Eliza would have been prepared for this role in life by her mother and the social norms that existed at the time. In the 1700's she would expect to marry young and to bear children at a young age. However her thinking about her own place in the world of colonial America is decidedly progressive. "How could she expect to rear and mold a brood of her own, when she was still trying to decide not only who she was, but how she would be in the world?" Eliza remarkably states that she doesn't think "that raising children should be all a woman concerned herself with either."  Although maybe a wealthy woman like Eliza Hamilton could entertain the possibility of doing things other than raising children, for most women, raising a family was their sole occupation and was considered an important duty.

Love and War will definitely appeal to fans of the Broadway musical, Hamilton. Readers should not expect an accurate portrayal of Alex and Eliza Hamilton's lives or their attitudes at that time,  but one that will definitely fuel their interest and which may encourage them to research the real story behind these two famous Americans who lived at a time when a new country was being forged.

Book Details:

Love and War by Melissa de la Cruz
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons          2018
366 pp.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Kitchen Madonna by Rumer Godden

The Kitchen Madonna, written in 1967 by renowned author Rumer Godden tells the story of a young boy's love for his family's Ukrainian housekeeper and his determination to make her feel at home.

Nine-year-old Gregory Thomas lives with his parents and his seven-year-old sister, Janet in London, England.Gregory's parents are both busy architects so they employ "help"' in the form of an older woman named Marta. Marta who has been with the family for three months now has made life much easier for Mrs. Thomas. "Marta was tireless, clean and a beautiful cook" although Mrs. Thomas believes she gives the children "...rather too rich and spicy foods." Janet wishes Marta could stay with them forever and Gregory is "so tired of changes" as they have had several helpers over the past two years. Gregory loves that Marta is "always there". He feels safe by her constant presence.

But Marta is desperately unhappy. Gregory's mother believes it is too lonely for her.Marta was a refugee, driven from her village by soldiers. Marta had been shot at by the soldiers and she never saw her parents again. Marta liked the kitchen in her home where everything was done, cooking, eating, sitting and sleeping. This astonishes Janet especially when she learns that Marta's family slept on top of the oven. Marta tells Gregory and Janet that their kitchen is empty, that it feels empty.

Gregory who never forgets, waits for a week before he finally asks Marta what exactly is missing. " ' In my home, Ukrainian home,' said Marta, 'We make a good place. In the corner, there' and she showed an angle of the room. 'A place on top of cupboard, perhaps, or perhaps on shelf. Little place but it holy because we keep there Our Lady and Holy Child.' "  Marta tells them that they keep a "picture" crusted with gold, "with gold and stones, pearls, rubies..." and that there were pieces of cloth on the picture as well. Gregory understand that Marta is talking about a type of icon. Gregory becomes determined to find Marta an icon.

Trips to the British Museum, and to Rostov's - a jeweller in Panton Place don't quite provide Gregory what he's looking for. Rostov's is far too expensive and the store clerks are dismissive. However, when Gregory and Janet unexpectedly seek shelter in a church during a rainstorm, it is in the church that Gregory receives his inspiration. Hanging on a pillar is a sort of picture. "It was a Madonna and Child, a Jesus-Mary, in a heavy painted frame, but both Mother and Child stood out of the picture - 'Because they are dressed whispered Gregory - dressed as Marta had described them in stuffs and gold. The crowns were gold lace carefully cut; the veil and cloak were blue edged with silver and stuck with sequins and beads that glittered. The Mother's robe was red, patterned with silver and the Child's small robe was red too, covered with silver and beads." The two children read that this is a picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa, Queen of Poland.  Janet believes this is Marta's "icon" but Gregory tells her its not really and icon. Looking at how the picture has been decorated, gives Gregory an idea of just how he might make a picture for Marta so that their kitchen is no longer "empty".

As is often the case, helping others has the most unexpected consequences.


The Kitchen Madonna is the first of several classic Rumer Godden books that will be reviewed on this blog in the coming months. Godden was born in 1907 in India, where she lived in the town of Narayanganj which is now part of Bangladesh. Rumer had an older sister Jon who was quite beautiful and popular and two younger sisters,Nancy who was her father's favourite and Rose who was the youngest. Rumer and her sister Jon lived in India until the end of World War I and then were sent to England to attend a High Anglican boarding school in East Grinstead. This was a terrible experience for the two sisters. Eventually, after being sent to various schools, Rumer settled in at a school while Jon was sent to art school. Rumer returned to India when she was seventeen and opened a dance school.

Rumer had a social awakening after reading A Passage To India, coming to realize the racial and class prejudices that existed at that time. It wasn't until after she married in 1934, that Rumer began writing. Her first book was Chinese Puzzle in 1936. Rumer Godden wrote several children's books including The Doll's House, The Fairy Doll, Candy Floss and Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. Among her more popular adult novels were Black Narcissus, In This House of Brede and Five For Sorrow, Ten for Joy. A dominant theme in her adult fiction is the loss of innocence and how that affects life. Rumer Godden converted to Catholicism in 1968 but much of her fiction has a touch of Catholicism and spirituality throughout.

She once stated that she felt writers are " simply an instrument through which the wind blows and I believe it is the Holy Spirit that makes the artist creative. My writing is something outside me that I've been chosen to do and I think that is what has enabled me to go on."

The Kitchen Madonna is a beautifully crafted story portraying the sacrificial efforts of a young boy to help alleviate the sadness of his family's live-in housekeeper, a middle-aged Ukrainian woman named Marta. Marta fled her home, was shot at by soldiers and suffered the loss of her parents. The exact details of what happened are not presented, but the reader comes to understand that Marta is deeply unhappy. Gregory is a sensitive, quiet boy who intuitively understands that "Marta's sadness had nothing to do with her country, it was of now." He is determined to learn the root of her sadness. Marta tells the Thomas family that their kitchen has no "good place" - a place for the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Child. Marta explains that this is a special kind of picture with "gold and stones, pearls, rubies...Sometimes real, sometimes no."  Gregory immediately grasps that this is a kind of icon.

Marta's sadness touches something deep within Gregory and he becomes determined to get her an icon. Although Marta hopes God will send her a picture, Gregory knows that he's the one to get the picture Marta desires. " 'God won't give her that picture, nor Mother, nor Father. I shall,' said Gregory." However, this proves far more difficult than Gregory or Janet imagined. They encounter a series of obstacles mostly due to the fact that they are young children without much money nor a means to travel around the city of London. But each obstacle is overcome with ingenuity and sacrifice that demonstrates the children's love for Marta and results in .

Their journey begins with a trip to the British Museum that will take most of their money. Janet is reluctant to give up her shillings because she is saving up for a pony. However Gregory admonishes her. "You mustn't be selfish." he tells his younger sister. They soon discover that an icon costs much more money than either of them have. And their money woes are compounded when they lose Janet's purse on the way home from the church near Rostov's store.

Gregory and Janet's sacrifices take on a much more personal note when Gregory actually begins creating the picture. When working out how to make her picture, Gregory decides he will use the frame from his beloved ship picture and paint it gold. But soon he discovers that he needs even more than that. Gregory is unable to find any scrap of material from Madame Ginette's donations that will work for the sky. Janet attempts to help, trading a pencil-sharpener and "a whole packet of peppermints" for a piece of pale blue velvet. When this doesn't work, "Janet almost cried with disappointment." Janet feels her sacrifice of peppermints was useless.  When Janet suggests that he use the sky from his "ship picture" Gregory is breathless, questioning "Cut up my ship picture for Marta?"

But this supreme sacrifice for what Gregory calls a more important picture, results in the picture coming together much more quickly and easily. "It was the first right step and almost at once he found the next...he found a piece of coral coloured cotton that, he suddenly saw, would make the veil and the Baby's robe..." Gregory's final sacrifice comes when he offers Mrs. Bartholomew his watch in exchange for a pound of toffee.Barty as she is called refuses his watch, instead writing him an I.O.U. Although Gregory is completely prepared to sacrifice his watch it is not necessary.

In helping Marta, and with each sacrifice, Gregory undergoes a journey that changes him. At the beginning of the novel, Gregory is described by his sister Janet as someone who "hardly ever does anything". "Gregory is a quiet boy, always first in his class at school but oddly out of things at home. 'He puts himself out of things,' Janet would have said and Mother complained, 'Gregory keeps himself to himself.' " Gregory's quietness is not understood by his mother who states, " 'He never hugs you as Janet does,...He's so wrapped up in himself that sometimes I wonder if he has a heart -- and he's so possessive."  Gregory also has the knack of never forgetting, he doesn't like to touch people and the Loft where he reads, is off limits to all.

As Gregory works on obtaining a picture for Marta, he begins to come out of himself. For example, when they are at the British Museum, it is Gregory who surprises Janet, asking where the icons are kept. He even carries on a conversation with a complete stranger in the icon room and gets their next lead in the search for an icon. At Rostov's, Gregory "quailed" at the shop door, fearful of entering, but he eventually works up the courage to do so. And while the shop's vastness and brightness makes Janet want to leave, Gregory is not afraid. While Janet "jibbed like a frightened little calf" , Gregory states that he wants to see the owner. "His voice, in its clearness and grandeur, reached all around the room, even to where an older man with white hair was writing at a desk at the back." When the men in the shop ridicule the children, Gregory stands his ground, "We didn't come here to be laughed at." he tells them. Although the visit to Rostov's ends badly Gregory has seen the kind of icon he believes Marta has in mind.

Gregory has his own space at home which he calls the Loft. It has a drawing table similar to his architect-father's drafting table, and he also has a favourite "painting of a little ship ploughing along in a rough sea under a pale blue sky with cotton wool clouds". Instead of asking Janet to leave his special space as he normally does, Gregory allows her presence as he considers the problem of Marta's picture. As he works away, Gregory notes, "Janet still breathed down his neck as he worked but something seemed to stop Gregory from snapping at her; perhaps it was those two pairs of pictured eyes that looked so steadily at him. He was patient with Janet and let her stay where she had never been allowed to stay before, in the Loft. He even let her go on with her questions."

When Gregory is unable to find the pieces of fabric for the Madonna, he acts on Janet's suggestion to visit their mother's milliner, Madame Ginette. Puzzled by Gregory's request, Madame Ginette asks him to explain why he needs the scraps. "For the first time Gregory smiled and then he, who never, as Mother complained, told anyone anything, told Madame  Ginette about Marta, the good place and the Kitchen Madonna." When Janet learns of Gregory's visit, she is stunned that Gregory went to Madame Ginette's alone AND that he spoke to her.

Determined to finish the picture, Gregory continues to reach out to those who might have what he needs. When he needs more wrappers for the border of the picture, he decides to visit the sweet shop, whose proprietor he has never spoken to and whose name he doesn't know. "What made him decide to carry out this business too without Janet he did not know, but he went alone and stood studying the toffees in their big glass jar." His explanation of why he needs the wrappers, stuns Mrs. Bartholomew. "Who would ever have thought you were that kind of boy. Proper stuck-up I thought you were: never a word for anybody...."

And when Gregory and Janet present the picture to their parents, telling them the entire story of how it came to be made, Gregory gives his sister her credit, " 'Because of Janet,' said Gregory -- and Janet glowed with pleasure -- 'Because of Janet I found a way to make the picture after all.' "  When Gregory cannot understand his mother's tears, she explains,
" 'What have you don?' said Mother through her tears. 'Lots of things. You began by sharing Rootle with Marta. You gave up your ship picture. You were ready to give up your watch, and here we all are in your Loft where you would never let us in.'....

'Yes!' said Mother. 'You let us in, Greg, and you have come out,' said Mother, which they did not understand."

The Kitchen Madonna is such a sweet story, chronicling how small acts of love can have such significant consequences in our lives.

Book Details:

The Kitchen Madonna by Rumer Godden
Toronto: Macmillian and Company Ltd.    1967
93 pp.