I read this book when I was very young and I got it because it was a very large book, I loved to read. I didn't know what I was getting into, this book has the texture of real life, all the misery of family life that I knew so well. All the same there is great genius in the eldest girl Louie and a great sort of happiness with imagination that I have myself.
The book has the same structure as Ms. Stead's childhood. Her mother died when she was 2 years old and her stepmother didn't like her, just like Louie in the book. Christina Stead had a love/hate relationship with her father just like Louie also from what I read about her. The war going on between the father and the stepmom I latched onto instantly, for that was what was going on in my own life. I got instant recognition, yes that is exactly how it is I thought but at the same time the book gives no solution and no judgments, it just is.
The stepmother Henny has many children, there wasn't a way to prevent pregnancy I suppose. Her husband had a job once and then lost it and Henny is forced to sell everything, her lace tablecloths, her dishes, anything to keep food on the table. He plays with the children and is pretentious pretending to be a great philosopher and scientist. He has a way with children for sure but he gives up even the pretense of looking for a job and the family sinks deeper and deeper into poverty. He does not think that he himself is at fault for anything, he is strangely disconnected from any worry at all. He leaves all the worry to his wife. Henny has tirades in this book, terrible screaming she does at him. She is bound to her husband and has a brief affair with a man she doesn't even like from whom she gets as much money as she can to feed her children. She plays the game of Solataire over and over again, until her mind grows blank and she no longer thinks of the sad situation she is in. Again, this is something my own mother did, ignoring the cries of her children and playing this endless game of cards. I wondered why she did it. I guess it was to numb her mind and think of nothing. The father and mother end up staying in separate parts of the house, using the children as messengers to one another.
In one of their fights Louie has a moment of clarity when she realizes that this war between her parents is ruining their moral natures. They call each other the vilest names they can think of, there is Henny sinking while her husband stands in the sunshine playing with the children without a care in the world.
When Henny dies it is a strange thing but a real thing the children's reaction. Being children they simply know that their mother is not there anymore and accept that she is in heaven easily. There is not much grief. The book says: When it stormed it was as if Henny too had stormed, but in another room in the universe, now under lock and key. Louie had gotten the idea to poison both her parents, but she got scared suddenly and put all the poison in one teacup. Henny somehow knows immediately when she sees Louie what she has done and what she says is remarkable. She says she doesn't blame her and goes into this long monolouge worthy of Hamlet. Then she picks up the cup with a jerky movement, as if she would stop herself but couldn't arrest the motion, she had already made a decision about life without even realizing that she was making it. Later Louie tells her father what she had done and he doesn't believe her, of course. She like her mom kept expecting something from this man and he couldn't do anything, not even grow up.
The man who loved children loved them because he was still a child himself.
Strangely enough their poverty improves after Henny's death and there is no one to worry about finances now that she is gone.
Louie runs away at the end of the book going for a walk around the world she says.
It is a remarkable book. Louie knows quite well when she crossed the line from the normal world, she had never been normal. There used to be this sort of yard between her world and the outside real world that she used to play in but it's gone now the author tells us.
In this secret world between us and the author, we recognize that Louie is a genius. She doesn't tell us that and no one tells Louie that, it is evident in the bedtime stories she tells the younger children and in the thoughts that she thinks. She worships one of her teachers, a Mrs. Alden, and she starts a great creative work called the Alden Cycle. She tell her parents she is doing homework when really she is working on this project of writing about the wonderfulness of Mrs. Alden. I did worship one of my teachers when I was young just like Louie. I think a child that is neglected tends to do that, to look elsewhere for a mentor. Louie throws herself into books of the great philosophers and poets the same way I fell into books, and she thinks thoughts so deep and yet still plays the role the family has for her. I think we do that. The parents are quite ignorant of Louie, and when she speaks her true thoughts they tell her she must not think these thoughts; they are crazy thoughts. I remember reading The Greening of America and telling my mom about it and her telling me I was being brainwashed by this book. I think she thought I was becoming a communist or a demon or something totally terrible and somehow criminial. This book was published in the sixties and was about the hippie movement making America more beautiful, more "green". The author later stated that the hippie movement died instead, what a relief for my mom!
The Man who Loved Children is beautifully written, but it's uncanny how much of this fictional book is so very real. I think it must be the real childhood of Christina Stead. Maybe because her childhood was so much like mine, I don't know, but this book, more than any other I have ever read, seems the most perfect reflection of real life.