At the start, those unfamiliar with The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead should get any “To Catch a Predator” type associations with the title out of their head. It isn’t meant in that kind of way at all. No one else may have been thinking that, but I kept thinking it any time I picked the book up, so I thought we’d start out by curing that potential misconception. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead is about a father who loves his children and the doom that is inherent within the dysfunction of his family.
(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Robb Forman Dew, 9th for Jonathan Franzen, and 3rd for Jonathan Lethem.)
The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead stars Sam and his wife Henny, as well as an entirely too large brood of children. Sam is optimistic and intelligent, but he’s a goof…particularly with his kids (whom he loves and can’t get enough of):
“Loobyloo! Loo-oobyloo! Loozy! Tea!”
Although Louisa did not answer she was at that moment crawling soundlessly out of bed. She heard him urging Evie, “Go on, Womey, call her Loozy.”
“No, Taddy, she doesn’t like it.”
“Go on, when I tahzoo [tells you].”
“No Taddy, she can hear.”
“Loo-hoozy! Loozy! Tea-heehee!”
Out of the tail of her eye Evelyn saw Louisa flash across the landing to the stairs. “She went,” she chanted soothingly, “she went.”
“This Sunday-Funday has come a long way,” said Sam softly: “it’s been coming to us, all day yesterday, all night from the mid-Pacific, from Peking, the Himalayas, from the fishing grounds of the old Leni Lenapes and the deeps of the drowned Susquehanna, over the pond pine ragged in the peat and the lily swamps of Anacostia, by scaffolded marbles and time-bloodied weatherboard, northeast, northwest, Washington Circle, Truxton Circle, Sheridan Circle to Rock Creek and the blunt shoulders of our Georgetown. And what does he find there this morning as every morning, in the midst of the slops, but Tohoga House, the little shanty of Gulliver Sam’s Lilliputian Pollitry–Gulliver Sam, Mrs. Gulliver Henny, Lugubrious Louisa, whose head is bloody but unbowed, Ernest the calculator, Little-Womey–” Evie laughed. “–Saul and Sam the boy-twins and Thomas-snowshoe-eye, all suntropes that he come galloping to see.”
Sam has all his ideas and his enthusiasm, but he just can’t see when it doesn’t all work. He’s an eternal child trying to raise children, and doing it badly.
His wife, Henny, on the other hand, is a bitter realist. Formerly from money, she runs up debts everywhere but is afraid to let Sam know. She hates him, hates her life, hates everything. She constantly threatens to kill all of her children and herself. Sam too.
“You ought to have had a man to make you wash floors and kick you in the belly when you didn’t hurry up for him,” said Henny with all the hate of a dozen years. “I’m as rotten as she is–I’ve had men too–I’ve gone trailing my draggletail in all sorts of low dives–I’ve taken money from a man to keep his children–I’m a cheat and a liar and a dupe and a weak idiot and there’s nothing too low for me, but I’m still ‘mountains high’ above you and your sickly fawning brother who never grew up–I’m better than you who go to church and him who is too good to go to church, because I’ve done everything. I’ve been dirty and low and done things you’re both too stupid and too cowardly to do, but however low I am, I’m not so filthy crawling in the stench of the butter, I haven’t got a heart of stone, I don’t sniff, sniff, sniff when I see a streetwalker with a ragged blouse, too good to know what she is: I Hate her but I hate myself. I’m sick of the good ones; I’m sick of that stupid staring idiot standing goggling at me who’s going to be as good as you are; nothing’s too good for you, nothing’s too bad for me; I’ll go and walk the streets with that poor miserable brat sister of yours–we’ll both get something to eat and some men to be decent to us, instead of loudmouthed husbands and sisters who want to strangle us–that’s what you said, that’s what you said, you can never go back on that, and in that your whole black cruel cold heart came out of you and you tried to strike her down with it, like a stone as he’d like to strike me down when he gets all he can out of me–and I know you both, I know you all–she’s the only decent one and that’s because she’s like me–no good–good because she’s no good–take your eyes off me, you staring idiot, get out of here, you filthy child–tell your daughter to get out of here–I can’t stand it–” Henny could say no more but began to scream and then fell to the floor, bumping her head hard.
Sam lives his life as he wants to see it, regardless of how it is. He has too many children and is too big on ideals to worry about providing enough for them. Henny is full of hatred and they fight constantly, putting the children in between. Sam browbeats Henny, Henny browbeats Sam, and they both crush their children. It’s a mess.
The Man Who Loved Childrenis a delightfully rich novel, jammed with weird characters set against each other as much as possibly can be. You know it’s all going to go wrong, you just aren’t sure which way until the end. At that point, it’s the only way it could have gone.
I love the vigor and originality in some of the dialogue too, particularly Sam the father. He’s a great one to follow in a book, but I’m sure I’d hate him in real life.
I’m surprised I’d never heard of The Man Who Loved Children before. It’s quite good and I think more people should read it. I don’t know about putting it on my all-time best list, but I’m definitely glad I finally got a chance to read it.