The Man Who Loved Children

Man Who Loved ChildrenIt’s no wonder that Sam Pollit, the titular man who loved children from Christina Stead’s 1940 novel, loves children so much. He’s a full-grown child himself most of the time—and a particularly immature one at that. He loves to be the center of attention, he peppers his speech with baby talk, and he demands that he get his way at all times and throws a tantrum when he doesn’t. In his household full of children, Sam (who calls himself “Sam-the-bold”) is the ringleader, popular for his embrace of “Sunday a Funday.” The only person who sees through him is his miserable, embittered wife, Henny.

Stead’s novel starts out feeling rather like a darker version of Cheaper by the Dozen, with its domineering but beloved father, but it gradually gets darker, turning downright shocking and sinister near the end. It’s a book about how family shapes us and how impossible it can be to break free from that early shaping. Indeed, by the end of the book, most of Sam and Henny’s children still appear to be under his spell.

Sam’s daughter by his first marriage, Louisa, is the first to break away. Lou, as the eldest and a step-sister to the rest of the group, has always been a little on the outside. But Sam gives her special attention as she is the daughter of his lost wife, Rachel (who, I should note, died before she got to see more of Sam’s true nature). Perhaps part of her breaking away has to do with Sam’s open contempt of women. When Henny is away, he superintends the housework (the most difficult part of the job), declaring that “all improvements in household technique have been made by men, becaze women got no brains.”

But there’s also the fact that Lou eventually grows up and wants to be her own person, and Sam cannot have that. He mocks her interests, as in these comments after he’s read, without Lou’s permission, a poem Lou wrote in praise of her teacher:

“Here,” he said, throwing it to her, so that it fell on the floor, “take it away; and don’t write such sickening tommyrot. Write if you want to, but not such silly nauseating stuff. I didn’t think you’d be so silly as to fall for calf love for a teacher. I thought you had more in you.”

“Looloo,” he said turning away to the children, “is trying to practice poickry with a poick’s licence, and I think she ought to be fined or go to jail.”

Stead does some interesting things with Sam’s language, here and throughout the book. Sam often speaks in a babyish code, throwing in nonsense words that everyone in the family appears to understand. The language binds them together, and it feels like a power play. Henny doesn’t use such talk, and so she’s forever on the outside.

Not that Henny is perfect. She steals money from the children, although it’s not clear to what extent this is an act of desperate necessity, needed to feed the children when Sam loses his job and Henny’s family estate has no money to offer. Henny runs up debts, but, again, it’s not clear to what extent the debts are necessary. It is clear that she gets desperate enough to slowly sell everything the family owns, and there’s little to show for it beyond simple meals and clothes. Whatever mistakes she made, my sympathies were with her, but that’s largely because I found Sam so entirely intolerable.

The book’s ending is startling, in both its dark turn and its weirdly inspirational finale. Throughout the book, the family’s situation becomes more fraught. Money becomes tighter, conflicts more overt. And the children are more mature and able to see the problems. The grimness grows and grows until someone finally decides to do something. This decisive, but ambiguous act changes everything, while also changing very little. Sam will always be Sam, it seems. But there’s reason to believe that it’s possible to get out from under his grasp, to stop being a child that he loves and thus to become free.

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9 Responses to The Man Who Loved Children

  1. Jeanne says:

    I’ve read about this book before, and although you make it more clear what is happening, reading it sounds no more compelling. I guess there are infinite ways to damage children, but I’m not going to be able to understand them all in one lifetime.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s true that we can’t understand all the ways kids get damaged, but I found this interesting I hadn’t seen it play out quite that way in fiction before. And the writing is very good–vivid and interesting language.

  2. Alex says:

    I gave up on this, I’m afraid, mainly because Sam annoyed me so much I was in danger of ripping the book ( a library copy) to pieces. I honour you for having got tot the end of it.

    • Teresa says:

      Sam is infuriating and I wouldn’t blame anyone for finding him to much to take! I probably could have liked this just as much if it had been shorter, but I found what Stead was doing interesting enough that I didn’t want to give up.

  3. Oh damn, this sounds fascinating. Though I think, like Alex, I wouldn’t be able to finish it, even though it sounds like Stead is doing a really cool thing with perspective and ambiguity. Hm.

  4. Jenny says:

    I’m so glad you liked this! I thought it was just brilliant — Sam’s own childishness, and Lou’s resistance, and the use of language, and all of it. I thought some of the most interesting stuff was that Sam loved “children” en masse but couldn’t love his own individual kids; loved “women” but not his own individual wife; etc etc. So easy to see happening.

    • Teresa says:

      The thing that fascinated me was how Sam’s light-heartedness ended up being so sinister. Stead never makes it seem OK, but by the end, it’s almost terrifying. And although my sympathies were with Henny a lot of the time, she’s not necessarily any better a parent. The complexity there was very satisfying.

  5. Stefanie says:

    This has been on my TBR list forever it seems. After your review I’m keeping it there and hopefully one of these days I will actually get to read it!

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