Natalie Savage Carlson’s Newbery Honor Book book The Family Under The Bridge is often called a seasonal novel, set as it is Christmas time Paris. Its true its a seasonal book, a book for all seasons. Ideal for eight years and above, this book is a wonderful read.
One of the main characters is an old vagabond Armand who loves Paris and wants to do no work. The others are a set of red-headed children who find themselves homeless in winter in the city of lights. Both are wary of each other but when they do warm up to each other, magic unfolds.
The author does not sugar coat the realities or difficulties the children have to face. Fortunately, despite all the obstacles it is a happy tale, one that fills us with hope.
Garth William’s who has illustrated many a Little Golden Book will make you fall in love with the characters in this book. Armand, the hobo, Suzy, Evelyne and Paul, the Calcet children all come alive through his beautiful rendition of them.
One morning Armand finds himself face to face with a bunch of ‘starlings’ as he calls children and their dog Jojo as he hunts for space under the bridge. Armand has very fixed feelings about children.
These starlings would steal your heart if you did’nt keep it well hidden. And he wanted nothing to do with children. They meant homes and responsibility and regular work – and all the things he had turned his back on so long ago. And he was looking for adventure.
They assess each other and the oldest of the children Suzy realises there are benefits in sharing their space with the old man. They narrate to him how their mother works as a laundress and they fear that if their condition is known they will be put in foster homes and be separated from each other. The old man and the children get into a symbiotic relationship.
Their mother, on the other hand, is not so pleased but when she sees that the children are probably safer in the company of the old hobo, she relents.
When two do-good women find the children under the bridge and decide that they must inform the police and send the children to a Children’s Home, the old man starts to seek an alternative home for the children and himself.
The children are cold and hungry, but Armand who knows another Paris – one of the streets – he finds shelter for them with his gypsy friends. The author tugs at our heartstrings when she describes how Armand dissuades them from thinking about or missing the wonderful Christmas delights that are on display at every street corner.
No sooner had he coaxed them away from the mechanical toy than they came to a bakery shop. There was a Christmas log cake in the window -such a delicious log. It was choclatey brown with fancy mushrooms popping from it’s sweet bark. Pink spun sugar roses grew out of the chocolate too. And such a real- looking ivy vine twined around it, spreading luscious green leaves.
“Oh doesn’t it look good! exclaimed Suzy, licking her lips.
“I could eat it all by myself”, cried Paul.
“I’m hungry”, whined Evelyne.
Armand pulled at each one in turn. “It really tastes like medicine,” he said. “All but the vine. That tastes exactly like ivy, tough and bitter. I ate a Christmas log once.” The children did not look as if they believed him. “It’s a tricky way they have of getting children to take medicine, “he insisted.
The children quite enjoy their stay with the gypsies. They long to have a mobile home too so that they can go about where ever they might choose.The author also evocatively writes about the deep human need for a home, a place of shelter to body and soul. Armand falsely promises Suzy that they will soon have a home to deflect their attention from wanting a mobile van.
Suzy’s eyes shone brighter than diamonds. “A real house?”, she asked in a hushed voice. “A house growing out of the ground?”
Entwined in this simple tale are the author’s insights that will make you smile. It seems not much has changed since 1958 when this book was first published. Take a look at her passage about the vendors and shoppers at the Rue de Rivoli.
Vendors behind the stands were bawling out their wares and imploring passers-by to examine their merchandise. Shoppers were buying earrings and suspenders and water softeners and silk scarves from the vendors. They were buying frantically and noisily, as if they never again might find anything for sale on the Rue de Rivoli. And the way they were madly buying, perhaps there wouldn’t be anything left on the street next day.
The Family Under The Bridge is a story of hope and togetherness. It is a story that speaks of love, overcoming adversity and the treasure that a family is. A family, the author tells us can take form in the unlikeliest of circumstances and is not always based on blood ties. This tale of finding love in the oddest of places and surviving adversity is sure to touch readers of all ages.
Age group: 8 to 12 years
Lexie Reading: 680L
You can buy this book here.