As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, Alan Bradley

My brother and I don’t, in general, have overlapping taste in novels. He’s five years older, and until the last year or so, I could only name a handful of books we’ve read as adults that have overlapped. By chance though, we share a common love for Flavia de Luce – that brilliant, morbid eleven year old Brit who solves suspicious deaths with her extensive knowledge of chemistry – and it was through him that I was tipped off about a new title being released. This particular novel, in which Flavia has been shipped off to a Canadian boarding school, ended up being a particularly timely read for me given that last week my own child started in part-time care. It’s his first time away from me for any lengthy period, and although the distance between us is three miles and not the three thousand that Flavia experiences, it tugged on my heart to read about this tough girl’s homesickness.

51byag2zqwl-_sy344_bo1204203200_In previous volumes, Flavia is shown with hardly a weakness (beyond the impetuousness of youth and a propensity to get into trouble, which unsurprisingly accompanies a healthy curiosity for things that shouldn’t concern her). In this book though, she seems much more vulnerable, much more the child she is, wishing often to be home and surrounded by familiar faces, even the sisters she claims to hate. Occasionally, when a writer plucks his protagonist out of her environs and drops her into a new place, such emotions are touched upon briefly but never revisited. Bradley, however, allows the reader to stew, coming back to Flavia’s struggle to adjust again and again.

I found myself getting distracted considering the differences between parent and child. Children, even brilliant ones like Flavia, are at the whim of parents and guardians. They are left in the dark for a variety of reasons and have to cope constantly. It’s terrifically difficult to be a kid for that very reason – the rug may be pulled out at any time, and it’s necessary to adjust. Even as an adult, before I became a parent, I associated very strongly with the many injustices of childhood that stem from ignorance (forced or otherwise).

It wasn’t until I had to care for my own son that I realized how painful it could be to make decisions for another person. I know he benefits greatly from spending twenty hours a week with a wonderful caregiver and other children, but I also know that at ten months, he may wonder at times where I am and feel abandoned because cognitively he hasn’t grasped all the necessary factors that have led to him being there and not here.

I also know that while it’s important for me to work, it’s painful to be separated from my child. I sometimes cry when I get to the car knowing that this small step back, this first taste of his independence is one of many I’ll take if I’m lucky. And it’s tough. As hard as it is to be a child, it’s equally difficult to be the parent and arbiter. Bradley’s perspective on Flavia’s situation reminded me of that. It made me wonder why her father made the choices he did, what information he had that she didn’t that would lead him to send his youngest across a vast ocean. And as I read about her struggle to hold it together in a strange new land, I wondered how many times a day his heart broke thinking of her there.

Even the last few minutes alone had been shocking. I had broken at least three of the Ten Commandments— the “Thou shalt nots” of British girlhood: I had cried, I had allowed alcohol to pass my lips, and I had fainted.

I examined my blurry image in the hanging glass. The face that stared dimly— but defiantly— back at me was a hodgepodge of de Luce: a grab bag of Father’s features, Aunt Felicity’s, Feely’s, Daffy’s— but above all, Harriet’s. In the harsh glare of the flickering overhead lightbulb, it reminded me— but only for a moment— of one of those topsy-turvy paintings by Picasso we had cocked our heads at in the Tate Gallery: all pale skin and a kaleidoscope mug. The recollection of it made me grin, and the moment passed.

I thought of the faded, flyblown wartime posters that still hung in Miss Cool’s confectionery in the high street of Bishop’s Lacey: “Get a Grip,” “Chin Up,” and “Best Foot Forward.”

I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and gave myself a smart regulation salute in the mirror.

How proud Father would be of me at this moment, I thought. “Soldier on, Flavia,” I told myself in his absence. “Soldier on, de Luce, F. S.” (p 82-83)

 

4 thoughts on “As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, Alan Bradley

  1. How interesting. I remember having a conversation wth my godfather many years ago about how children suffer as much as adults ( I was thinking of myself at the time) but adults think they are the only ones who do. I remember being very elated when he actually said to me “I suppose no one ever asks what a child feels. They are just assumed to be content with what they’ve got.” This must have been about fifty years ago or more. He is now 97 and I am 62. I have had a very volatile relationship with him but his actual understanding of me then has helped me through lots of difficulties

    1. I’ve spent many years working with children, and there is no doubt in my mind that their feelings are just a more raw version of what we think of as “civilized” expression of emotion. Over the years, we learn to suppress the outbursts and to accept hardship must be dealt with differently. The emotions are the same, but they’ve been tempered. It’s a different view of children than your godfather probably experienced over the last hundred years for sure, so it’s amazing that he had the revelation and was able to share it with you.

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