Carlson (1959 Honor Book) This is a short little page turner that can easily be read in an evening and makes for a deeply satisfying literary experience. It is hopeful, charming, and optimistic. This is a book that will genuinely make you feel good reading it.
Which is pretty incredible given that the topic is urban family homelessness. The family that is under the bridge is there because they have no place else to live. It’s not drugs or crime or any of that very dramatic stuff that bring them there, just bad luck and difficult circumstances. They aren’t even really a family at the outset of the book and that is part of the charm of the narrative.
The protagonist of The Family Under the Bridge is actually not the children but an elderly vagrant by the name of Armand Pouly. This in itself is pretty fascinating. Yes there are children in the book, yes investment in them is a driving motivator in the narrative but ultimately this is a children’s book that is the story of an elderly man. How wild is that? Armand is an utterly delightful old codger, relentlessly optimistic and devoutly attached to his life without responsibilities and without work.
When he discovers the children hidden at “his” spot beneath one of Paris’ bridges he is immediately cautious lest the “little starlings” steal his heart. The children have a mother who works as a laundress and is desperate to make it clear that they are NOT tramps despite the reality of their situation but it is Armand who quickly takes over care of them while she works in the day.
Poor Armand, three small children and a stray dog change him utterly as a person. There is a MAGNIFICENT moment at the end of the book where he has transformed into a figure of great gravitas engaged in seeking employment and housing for his new family:
Monsieur Brunot noted his hesitation. “We really want a family man,” he said.
That brought Armand’s mind back to the needy Calcets. “Oh, I’ve got a family all right monsieur,” he said, “Three children and their mother. You should see my grandchildren. They would steal your heart away.”
At this point in the book if you are not crying your eyes out then you have no soul and are a horrible horrible person.
The Family Under the Bridge also has lovely gentle little illustrations by Garth Williams who also did the very famous illustrations for Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. It’s pretty amazing that he can create images of children literally sleeping on the streets of Paris and still have them be charming and easy on us the reader.
While the Newbery books often deal with poverty it is usually rural poverty. People are tenant farmers or sharecroppers or on the road after the farm fails. This is the first Newbery that I have encountered that deals with child poverty in an urban environment particularly a text that is based on family homelessness. It is interesting that this book which is a product of the golden era of American prosperity and conformity (the 1950s) deals with poverty and individuals on the fringe of society in such a gentle and generous way.
Armand’s transformation is an inspiration for us all. Who knows what small act will freight us with great responsibilities? I think that what we do for those who have been entrusted to our care is one of the great measures of mankind. Armand, the shabby, drifting, Parisian tramp, is a literary hero for the ages.
Side note: I will be looking at a LOT of the honor books here. The winners of the Newbery are, of course, amazing but a lot of really fascinating books ALMOST got the prize as well and a lot of them have fallen out of favor or been forgotten over the years.