Tag Archives: Red Fox

Child refugees and The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

I offer you child refugees to think about for Refugee Week(18th– 24thJune 2018). I start with a children’s book: The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. It was first published in 1956, written in his summer holidays by a school teacher in Sussex. It is set in Europe, mostly after the end of the Second World War, when millions were displaced, trying to find a place to live or to return home. The characters are based on real people, who travel through a real landscape. The reader, young and old, understands that the war created a terrible situation for the Balicki family from Poland, and they were fortunate to survive and be reunited.

The Quest of The Silver Sword

I read this children’s book very soon after it was published. It made a lasting impression on me, and I gladly reread it for this post 60 years later. The story follows a family who were separated in Warsaw during the war by the Nazis. The father, a school teacher, was arrested for a small act of disrespect to Hitler, but escaped from the prison camp; the mother was sent as slave labour to Germany, and the three children survived in the cellars and forests of Warsaw until the end of the war. When the city was liberated by the Red Army, the three children made their way from Warsaw to Switzerland, along with another stray child and his animals (at times he has a chicken, dog and chimpanzee from Berlin Zoo). This was the time – after the war – when chaos and devastation was everywhere in Europe and millions of displaced people were trying to get somewhere else. War is terrible and destructive and creates refugees of people of all ages.

The family and Jan are connected by the sword of the title, a paperknife, originally given to Mrs Balicki by her husband. The older daughter, Ruth, a teenager, leads the children. She is a natural teacher, a resourceful problem-solver and able to take command and care of the younger ones. Edek has TB, and for a while had also served as slave labour, but at the end of the war was liberated to a prison camp. Bronia is the youngest and then there is Jan, the wild boy whose fate is tied up with theirs and the silver sword.

This is a classic quest, with near escapes, disasters and a great deal of kindliness from individuals: Red Army soldiers, Germans (the farmers), British and US soldiers, and the refugee organisations set up to help the many, many refugees with their journey and with tracing family members. Against all the odds, capture, betrayal, hunger, tiredness, illness, orders to return to Poland, and travelling by foot, lorry, and even canoes, they are all reunited in Switzerland.

At the time of its publication it was, apparently, suggested that children should not be exposed to the distress in the story. Perhaps the adults had not yet recovered from their distress from the war that had ended only 10 years earlier. Despite this it was soon adapted for a BBC TV series in 1957 and later also for the radio and there have been stage versions too. Puffin Books, the children’s section of Penguin Books, republished it in paperback in 1960. It has remained popular with children.

Child refugees

Ian Serraillier makes much of the sympathy that young people easily evoke, encouraging people to share meagre supplies, or to bend a rule or two, even to provide life-saving footwear, canoes and accommodation. Child refugees should be a phrase we never read. But in Refugee Week we must not ignore them.

Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee was drowned aged 3 on 2ndSeptember 2015. You will remember him and the picture of him washed up on a Turkish beach. Like many thousands of refugees, displaced by war, he drowned crossing the Mediterranean trying to reach Greece. The situation briefly became clear – everyone agreed that something had to be done. But it wasn’t and refugees, including children, continue to make the dangerous crossing, to drown, or to find no welcome in Europe, or to face the ‘hostile environment’ in the UK.

Did You See Me? is a short story of 329 words by Kit de Waal. It is dedicated to Alan Kurdi, ‘the boy on the shore’. You can find it in a recently published anthology of the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers: A Country to Call Home, edited by Lucy Popescu.

Did you see me in Kobane, running through the square? Did you hear my father’s shout? We were laughing, my brother and I, and my father came lumbering after us, his arms outstretched. ‘You’re too far away! I cannot catch you!’ (43)

Every refugee is an Alan Kurdi, or a child of the Balicki family. You and I and children we know have escaped this fate only by the accident of our births.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, first published in 1956 by Jonathan Cape. US title Escape from Warsaw. Puffin Books in 1960. The edition I read was from Red Fox and includes an afterword by the author’s daughter. 192pp

A Country to Call Home, an anthology of the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers edited by Lucy Popescu, published by Unbound in 2018. 241pp

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Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen

My friend M is a golfer, and when we go for country walks I have to ask her to slow down a little because her pace is so fast. She is a writer of influence, recently acknowledged by the production of a festschrift in her honour. Now retired she undertakes research for and edits the magazine of her chosen charity. She also looks after her grandsons most weeks. Miming a grandmother the other day one of her grandsons bent over, held a stick in his hand and shuffled across the room, looking for all the world like that road sign.

230 road signM tells this story with puzzle in her voice. The image of the old person is stronger than the reality. And again: ‘It’s not as if we are like Mrs Pepperpot,’ said one of the grandmothers at a recent community performance. We were exploring our experiences of being grandmothers. I had heard of Mrs Pepperpot. She evoked an image of a small neat woman with a tight bun. Old. But I had never read the stories.

It is time to look at the 19th in the series of older women in fiction, this one for children. And time to ask whether she shapes young people’s understanding of older women.

230 Mrs P cover

The Stories

Mr and Mrs Pepperpot live on a hillside in Norway. He is out all day working in the fields. Her role is domestic. In the first story she has a busy day ahead.

Firstly she must clean the house, then there was all the washing that was lying in soak and waiting to be done, and lastly she had to make pancakes for supper. (7)

In this first story, and every story about her, Mrs Pepperpot unexpectedly becomes the size of a pepperpot. This change inevitably brings a problem for her to solve, not least because she never wants anyone to see her when she is small.

Her creator was Alf Proysen, a Norwegian writer and musician who lived from 1914 to 1970. The Mrs Pepperpot stories first appeared in 1959. She is completely of her time. Her role in the Pepperpot household and her priorities were what was expected of an old woman before the second wave of feminism.

230 Alf Proysen

Mrs Pepperpot

It is established from that first story that Mrs Pepperpot’s priorities are domestic, and in particular the smooth-running of the household. The most pressing of her duties is the production of the food for Mr Pepperpot on his return from work.

‘Now for cooking supper,’ said Mrs. Pepperpot; ‘my husband will be back in an hour, and by hook or by crook, thirty pancakes must be ready on the table.’ (12)

In every story her sudden reduction in size produces a problem she must solve: match-making at midsummer, picking bilberries, finding lost items, spring cleaning.

What I like about Mrs Pepperpot

This little old lady is feisty. She may suddenly be reduced in size, but she still does what she set out to do. She uses a mixture of techniques and any allies she finds, including the animals. She bullies, bribes, nags and schemes to do to what she needs. And she uses magic. And then she grows back to her original size.

As both the diminutive and full size versions of herself, she demonstrates the following qualities

  • Resourcefulness
  • Adventurousness
  • Lack of daunt
  • Inventiveness
  • Quick thinking
  • Straight speaking
  • Determination
  • Guile

She doesn’t complain about her peculiar shrinking habit, just gets on with it. This old woman has the wit and the wisdom to be active and to manage difficult situations. She is also a learner.

As you know, Mrs Pepperpot can do almost anything, but, until last summer, there was one thing she couldn’t do; she couldn’t swim! Now I’ll tell you how she learned. (298)

What I don’t like about Mrs Pepperpot

Three things really worry me about these stories.

Mrs Pepperpot’s life is circumscribed by her domestic duties, especially food production and house maintenance.

I could construct a case that the size thing indicates the invisibility of older women. Older women often make things happen without appearing to, and without upsetting the perceived order and hierarchy of their community.

Mrs Pepperpot does not challenge her situation, visit the doctor, consult mental health specialists, but rather meekly accepts her lot, albeit making the best of things, and still fulfilling the all-import domestic functions of her role as grandmother.

Final thoughts

So does it matter that the Mrs Pepperpot image is dominant as an image of older women? Does it influence the beliefs of the young? While there is much to enjoy in the stories I would want the brave and redoubtable Mrs P to have an opportunity to escape from her life. And I would want young readers to have a more varied version of older women.

Mrs Pepperpot Stories by Alf Proysen. I used a collection published by Red Fox in 2011, collected from stories published from as long ago as 1959. 464pp

Illustrations are by Bjorn Berg. (Cover by Hilda Offen.) No translator is acknowledged. That’s not good.

Related

This is the 19th in the series older women in fiction. Two most recent posts are:

Josephine Tey The Franchise Affair

Barbara Pym Quartet in Autumn

The full list of older women in fiction compiled from readers’ suggestions can be found here: Older women in fiction series.

Over to you: Have you read Mrs Pepperpot? Is she an acceptable model of an old woman? Do children you know think of old people as cronky?

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Filed under Books, Books for children, Feminism, Learning, Older women in fiction, Reading