They Sold My Angel In a Yard Sale

April 2, 2010

Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay
first published in UK, 2001
Margaret K. McElderry of Simon and Schuster, 2002
Finished: late February 2010
Source:  Nymeth’s blog and Jenny’s Books
Genre: Children’s or Young Adult fiction

Several of you spoke up for a review of Saffy’s Angel when I did my Reader’s Request post, in which I mentioned that I hadn’t enjoyed this deserving book much because “it poked a stick in all my childhood complexes.”

Well, not quite all, as there are far too many of them for one book.  But how I disliked disliking it!  Do I get any points for that?  Such a disappointment to be barred from the Hilary McKay fan club.  Saffy’s Angel is just the kind of story I usually love: a British children’s novel bound to confuse American publishers.  See, American book marketers have a lot of trouble understanding kids as thinking human beings, because they are also a dragon’s hoard of potential cash, to be handled with kid gloves.  Saffy’s Angel is heavy with everyday British cultural references, and (gasp!) the action isn’t centered exclusively around a 8-12 year old protagonist.  There are grownups with grownup concerns as well, and teenagers, but no easily pinned-down “teen issues” that would place it in the YA category.  “ARRGGH!  HOW DO WE MAKE THIS SEEM LIKE HARRY POTTER SO WE CAN SELL IT?”

My impression of Hilary McKay is that she is old school, going back to the conventions (if you can call them that) of Penelope Farmer, Mary Norton, Phillipa Pearce, Barbara Sleigh, K.M. Peyton and others: a particular kind of middle-20th-century slice-of-life British children’s writing.  (The other side of the coin would be outright fantasists like Peter Dickinson and Joan Aiken.) Reading Saffy’s Angel, I felt I could be reading a book written 50 or more years ago, instead of just 10.  At first I assumed McKay was setting her story in the 70’s or early 80’s:  no computers, no saturating pop culture.  No television that I can recall.  I was quite startled when cell phones were used and I realized the book was meant to be contemporary!

What I’m saying, though, is that this didn’t bother me.  The reverse: the atmosphere was familiar and comfortable.  I grew up on British children’s books in yellowed dust-jackets.  I should have been able to settle down right away and enjoy her fine writing and deceptively broad-brush character portraits.  Like an expert painter, McKay has the talent for rendering whole, vivid people in a few strokes.

Maybe that’s the problem.  If the Cassons had felt less real, there would have been less cognitive dissonance when I entered in their world.  My family was to the Cassons what The Simpsons were to The Andy Griffith Show.  What The Addams Family were to The Wonder Years.

Parallels between me and Saffy

Parent died when tot: check

One current parent arty and spacey: check

Lots of half-siblings (Saffy’s siblings are her cousins, which I find interesting): double check

In hopelessly chaotic house: check

I mean, like, you can’t actually do anything in it, unless you perform pile archeology first, and then there’s no room to do it in because you spread out the piles: check

A feeling of not fitting in with the rest of the family: check

These basic similarities contributed to a creepy sense that Saffy’s experiences were a twisted-alternate-universe version of my own.  Or I should say, MINE was the twisted alternate universe, though it’s surprisingly hard to wrap my brain around that.  So many things were shown as loving and jolly for Saffy that were not loving and jolly for me.  And even when things weren’t strictly jolly in the Casson family, they were at least funny.  One sensed that they were just one step away from being able to laugh over it all when it was over, or else cry over it and comfort each other and move on.  Even the jerky father was no big deal.  Everyone knew that he was a jerk (except Eve, maddeningly) and went on from there.  Their interconnected, benign relationships let them present a unified front to their problems.

What’s not to love in an example like that?  Well, for starters, I don’t really believe a family like Saffy’s can work that way because I’ve never seen one that did.  O me of little faith.  I probably wouldn’t even believe in a happy artistic family if I saw it; if I were Doubting Thomas in the Bible and Jesus showed me the spike holes in his hands, I would have scratched at them and said, “What’s this?  Some kind of paint?”

Even the Wyeths had their dark side.  Even the Cheaper by the Dozen family (By glaring omission.  Ask me.).  I have the same reaction as a victim of violence who sees violence glamorized, when I see dysfunction jollified.  It makes me want to tell the world dreary things like:

Eccentrics are exhausting, both to be and to live with.

Sometimes you feel like you don’t fit in to your family because you don’t fit in.

Sometimes no one will support you in what you need, even when you are young.

Not all bossy, manipulative little girls are good-natured dictators; they are not an ideal place for the inexperienced to seek bosom friendship.

Messy/dirty houses where nothing gets thrown out aren’t funny in real life–not even darkly funny.

Hoarding is often a symptom of mental illness.

Spaceyness can be a voluntary offensive and defensive tactic.  It is not a necessary by-product of an artistic nature, to be coddled.

Of course the world already knows all these things, so no need to tell it.  And there are tons of books about miserable childhoods in intellectual / artistic families, so kudos to McKay for writing something different.  I did laugh at the signs in the car.

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13 Responses to “They Sold My Angel In a Yard Sale”

  1. Ms Trapunto – I spent about 20 minutes trying to steal find an email address for you before surrendering to speaking in the free and open air for my response. Sorry. For commenting. Or doing it publicly. Or trying to find your email address. Take your pick, really, all are perfectly good choices. But, for my own silly reasons, I’ll leave a comment anyway, I guess.

    First of all, I should apologize, I know I asked you to write a review, and if that made you bathe in ugly old things, to write it, I’m very sorry. I am not the best at being conscious of the feelings of people around me, and I’m sorry.

    But since you did write such a review, an apology from someone you hardly know and who you probably have little enough in common with, I suppose, might not really do much good.

    And, since this is a comment, not an email, I won’t be overly personal (I’m opting for awkward and weird instead, I think, hopefully that’s working out?), but I will say, that I very much felt your review, today, that it was beautiful and very honest.

    I won’t give you the line, about the ‘you were very brave to write this’, because you were brave, and when I say things like that, I feel like I’m being dramatic and stagey, and as someone who is now humbled to confess that he’s probably more like the selfish eccentric than any other character you’ve described, I guess that kind of drama for me is usually more about me saying the oh-so-lovely things I’m saying, than it is about who I’m talking about.

    I’m not very good at talking about other people, I always find myself slipping back and talking about myself :/. So, I will only say, that to me and in me, this review was beautiful, and has made me, at least for today until I put my head in the sand again some other time, a better and hopefully less selfish soul for having read it. So, thank you, aside my apologies – at least for me, being thanked by a stranger is better than being apologized to by one, so hopefully that helps a bit.

    Thanks again. And sorry, for being awkward. Ok. Being quiet now.

    • trapunto said

      Not having an email available was an oversight. I’ll fix that. It’s all good with the commenting though. I’m a bit tired so I don’t have much to say just now but thank you.

  2. Jenny said

    I’m so sorry this was a difficult read for you. Hell. There are books I feel this way about, completely, though for different reasons. I suppose the reason I like these books is that they feel like a triumph of happiness over sadness. As much time as I spend trying to win out over sadness, it is nice to read something that makes that seem possible.

  3. Jodie said

    I would like to ask you about Cheaper by the Dozen (are we talking the Tom Wellings, Steve Martin film or is there some original book or movie version I should know?)

    McKay always write about some kind of unconventional family, but from what I’ve heard about this book it seems like she takes it to a more extreme, personal place here than she does in The Exiles series. I hear a lot about how the father treats his kids, but is the mother disconnected as well, enabling him to be more of a jerk?

    • trapunto said

      I haven’t seen any of the films. I was talking about the book Jason mentions below. It’s one of those that gets put out over and over in paperback “children’s classics” editions in the states. The action takes place in the 1910s’, I believe.

      I found Saffy’s Angel more gentle and witty than extreme or personal, so maybe there isn’t a big difference between the Casson books and her others. The “extreme and personal” part was my reaction, not the book’s tone. I wouldn’t be able to say whether Eve is an enabler or not without having read the other books in the series. I think the dad is the kind of guy who doesn’t really need an enabler. He’s perfectly abled all by himself, though in Saffy’s Angel he’s portrayed as charming except for his jerky blind spots.

  4. Ms Jodie – not to steal Ms Trapunto’s thunder, but just FYI – Cheaper by the Dozen was originally a book, then a musical, based on a family, the parents of which were two big management theorists – same people who, for instnace, worked with businesses on efficiency studies, to try to break tasks into individual pieces so workers wouldn’t have to think while working. Both (but especially papa) were very dogmatic about their theories of efficiency and applied them (rather ruthlessly) in their household. Which is presented as something of a funny lark in the book, and dear papa is such a good fellow at heart. In truth, I imagine it would have been a nightmare, though my knowledge of the actual family’s life is somewhat limited.

    • trapunto said

      Yes. I read somewhere that there were a lot of breakfast table scenes in the hugely popular play. The actors ate mashed potatoes dyed yellow to look like scrambled eggs. Apparently a stage convention: you can swallow the potatoes fast enough that you don’t ever end up with your mouth full of food when it’s you’re cue. Intrigued me as a kid.

      • Wow, did not know THAT little tidbit. I had a friend who played the lead in a local version of the musical when I was a senior in HS – wish I’d paid attention to their dinner plates. The two of us ate estranged since, and I can’t imagine she would think much of an email asking her now…

  5. Jeanne said

    I think it takes a very special book to make readers feel how exhausting eccentricity can be. Wish Her Safe At Home is the only one I can think of right now.

    • trapunto said

      Too true. I would have liked Saffy’s Angel better if it had made an effort in that direction. Maybe I Capture the Castle does it a bit–or eccentricity combined with poverty, at any rate.

  6. Nymeth said

    Like Jason, I find this a brave post – thank you for being so open with us. I’d apologise for making you write it, but I know we didn’t really “make” you. But thank you anyway, and thank you also for making me realise that these things have a darker side. Your reaction, though very different from my own, makes complete sense to me. I didn’t have a happy childhood, though mine was unhappy in different ways, and I can easily imagine myself reacting this same way to a different sort of book.

    • trapunto said

      Thank you. Though I didn’t feel brave writing this, just sort of vulnerable and self-indulgent at the same time.

      As I read blogs and see how varied people’s responses are to particular books–once you get beyond the well-written/poorly-written level–I wonder if all that extraordinary variety doesn’t go back to childhood: when you started reading, what you read, what your life was like then; what fed your imagination and made it grow, what glutted it and made it lazy, how the people around you regarded books, what books you you had access to…

      This is a bit of why I’m such a fanatic for libraries, and have a retroactive crush on Andrew Carnegie!

      I like to think my fate as a reader was sealed when I was 9. The very first novel I read was my great grandmother’s 1910’s copy of Anne of Green Gables, at her house. I have a clearer memory of sitting at a wooden folding table with a bowl of soup (I was recovering from a bout of chicken pox), that thick green book, and the way the first chapter was like a dense, confusing thicket of all-words-no-pictures that eventually opened out into a story, than almost anything else in childhood.

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