It’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.