Noel Streatfield is best known for her children's books, especially Ballet Shoes. Although Saplings (published by Persephone) is written for adults, it's a novel about children during war time. Its main theme is the importance of stability and routine in a child''s life.

The saplings referred to in the title are the four Wiltshire children who come from a happy and ordinary middle-class family but due to world war two, the parents and siblings are forced to spend time apart. The background of this novel is actually based on true events. In London and other major towns, many parents chose to evacuate their children to the countryside to keep them safe from the threat of bombing that was looming over the cities. The posters below are actual ones from that era.  

A September 1939 government poster urging women to register their children for evacuation (from the Persephone Post)

A propaganda poster  (from the Daily Mail website)

About 3.5 million children were evacuated from the cities and had to endure gas mask training, rationing and living with strangers. Many of them had traumatic experiences because of being separated from their families. 

Noel Streatfield worked as an air raid warden during the war and often made visits to London's southern areas to help organise the evacuation of families. She must have had close contact with children to have such an extremely realistic insight into their thoughts and feelings. Their confusion, anger and homesickness are very well portrayed. Although the Wiltshire children didn't have to endure living with strangers, they were still shuffled from their home, schools and relatives several times during the war. We see how they deal with the instability of their home lives and how the death of a parent throws their small world into further chaos.

What is actually surprising about this novel is that it was written in 1945 when the psychological effects of war on children hadn't yet been closely studied but Streatfield shows she is definitely in tune with her subject matter. According to Dr.Jeremy Holmes who wrote the afterword in the Persephone edition, "Streatfield's supreme gift was her ability to see the world from a child's perspective."

I didn't find this an easy read and actually started it a few months ago. I put it aside and read other novels and recently picked it up again. This is not a happy book but it's an interesting one nonetheless. Saplings isn't one of my favourite Persephones but it's still a very good one.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?


  1. I finished 'Saplings' a few weeks ago. I found it an interesting but rather depressing read and felt in need of some uplifting Wodehouse as soon as I'd completed it :D

  2. I haven't read this book and in fact didnt know of it until this post. It sounds very interesting, I think there has been a big movement of evacuee fiction and memoir this year.

  3. Hi, Mrs. B! I'm really interested in this book. Unfortunately, our bookstores here in Manila don't have that many Persephone books in stock.

  4. It sounds pretty sad. :( I've heard of a home like this for child that was run by Anna Freud-- it's pretty interesting stuff.

    I see you're reading Oryx and Crake. How're you finding it?

  5. I've not yet read this one but it sounds good despite the heavy subject matter. There do seem to be more books about evacuated children during WWII. The only thing I've seen is a film adaptation of the book Carrie's War, which is very good, and much lighter in tone than this. Have you seen it or read the book?

  6. @She - I haven't heard of the home run by Anna Freud. Yes, it's interesting stuff. I wasn't even aware of this episode in British history till the Guernsey book.
    Oryx and Crake is brilliant so far!

    @Danielle - I haven't heard of Carrie's War but I'll definitely look it up.

  7. I've heard about this! I think I saw Carrie's War mentioned by Danielle above. Or maybe there was a Masterpiece Theater version of this made? It sounds vaguely familiar to me in film form, but now I don't know why... I am of no help :-)

  8. I finished this one a few weeks ago and enjoyed it, you're right, not a happy book at all. But I was surprised that the story and the children's predicament while billed as illuminating the effects of war really seemed to only be agitated by the war and like you said a result of lack of routine and an unwilling parent.

  9. I actually really loved this one - it will probably make my list of favourite reads of the year - but you're right, not happy in the least :\

  10. This is actually my favourite Persephone- it's definitely not a comfort read, but it's nevertheless the most special to me.

  11. I stopped by today and enjoyed your blog.
    I remember reading Noel Streatfield at school in England during the late 50s. I also recommend Carrie's War. When I moved to Cornwall in 1973 I met many people who had been moved to the country as children and their families had been killed in London. They stayed in the country and made lives with new families there.


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