…by Christina Stead.
First and foremost, don’t let the title put you off. This isn’t a story about paedophilia. Rather, it is about an American family — the Pollits. The head of the family is Sam Pollit — a chauvinist, a narcissist, who loves his children, enjoys his work as a public servant and believes his morals and his way of living is the right way of living. Then there is his wife. His second wife, Henny Pollit. With physical and possibly, mental health issues of her own. And a brood of children — Louise (aka Louie) from his dead first wife, Rachel, Ernest, Evelyn (aka Evie), Sam and Saul (twins) and Tommy. The children are unaware of their mother’s misery and together with Sam take it in their stride. However, Louie seems to be able to see through her father at times. Not always though. Sam basically can’t provide for his huge family and Henny is snobbish enough to not be able to budget despite borrowing from others.
During this period, Sam gets sent to Singapore for a period of 10 months on work. Upon his return, he is faced with crises. His wife gives birth again. To a son named Charles. His rich father-in-law dies leaving them nothing. And he has to move his family from their home as his late father-in-law didn’t leave it to them. And finally, he loses his job thanks to negative reviews from Singapore. As he loses his job, Sam ends up staying home and being a father to his children as well as other kids from the neighbourhood. He talks about eccentric views and ideas while at the same time treating his wife like shit. His behaviour towards Louie sways from one end to the next. He is sweet at times and viciously mean at others. Unfortunately, he seems to think it is all in jest and the other children get their laughs too. All in all, it tells the story of a highly dysfunctional and unhappy family.
This is a massive book spanning about 500 plus pages. But the story woven by Stead is remarkable. It appears to be so realistic that you cringe and you worry with the characters. Despite the fact that it was set back in the 1940s or so, you could readily believe a story like this to be set in the current day. There are still such dysfunctional families. There are still such unhappy families. There are men like Sam who continue to believe where a woman’s place is supposed to be. It was probably worse back then but it exists even now. His brutality and violence towards Henny, both physically and emotionally make you loathe him. The manner in which he treats his children is also written beautifully. He truly believes he loves them. He has nicknames for the entire lot. But at the same time, should they think contrary to him, they face his wrath in the form of words. The book leads up beautifully to a climactic ending which isn’t necessarily a happy one.
Apparently, the book was first based in Sydney but in a re-issue edition in 1965 (which I ended up reading), it was changed to an American family based in Washington. It’s a bit disappointing because I would have preferred to read the original version. However, it looks like the American one is the only one in print.
To sum up, this book is a brilliant look into dysfunctional families. How unhappy life can get when adults in the family don’t act their role and remain idealistic and self-involved. Some of the reading might be a bit difficult due to Sam’s eccentricities and the manner in which he says things but the reader can definitely get past that.
Until next time,