Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Winter of the Birds - Helen Cresswell

Helen Cresswell's The Winter of the Birds is a beautiful story which explores the transformation of a small community as seen through the eyes of young resident, Edward Flack. The community has a self-appointed guardian, the solitary Mr. Rudge, who has discovered a secret menace to the area: every night, steel birds fly through the sky on wires, and they seem to be growing more numerous even as the real birds are disappearing. Everyone in the street is afraid of Mr. Rudge - many of the local children and some of the adults claim he is mad, because he sits up all night watching the sky, but Edward dares to befriend him. Edward is very fond of hero tales (especially classical ones) and is undergoing hero training that he has devised himself; part of it includes committing himself to performing feats of daring, such as walking past the abandoned local church, St Saviours at night. One day he thinks about Mr Rudge, alone in his big empty house:

Edward felt a sudden pang. In that moment he had a strong feeling of the solitariness of that old man, of his walking about that great empty house night and day alone. Eating in silence, winding clocks in silence, mounting the stairs to the top room in silence. He lived and moved in silence as though it were an element, or a new dimension. (p.21)

and he dares himself to go and see Mr Rudge. Because Edward isn't like other boys (none of the other local boys has ever dared to approach Mr Rudge, they prefer to shout abuse and throw stones), Mr Rudge confides in him about the steel birds. Edward doesn't know what to do with this terrifying new knowledge, but then into his life erupts Patrick Finn, driving a taxi and bringing with him Edward's uncle, whom he has saved from a suicide attempt. Finn has already transformed uncle Alfred from a drab accountant to a dreamy artist, after just 24 hours, and Edward recognises that Finn is a genuine hero; he is delighted with his good fortune in finding such a mentor, not to mention someone who can help to rid the town of the steel birds.

Everyone in the community is transformed by the arrival of Patrick Finn, a giant of an Irishman with wild red hair and beard, and between Mr Rudge and Finn, the entire community finds itself banding together to drive out the steel birds.

This book is mysterious - the existence of the steel birds remains ambiguous throughout as only Mr Rudge has ever seen them, although Edward thinks he's heard them sometimes - and beautiful; there are some gorgeous passages, including this one:
Even so, [Edward] began to see that Mister Rudge was, in a sense, not entirely flesh and blood, because he lived removed from the world outside where everyone else went about their daily business. He knew, in a way, nothing. He could not, for instance, Edward thought, know from a book how it felt to run in new snow, the soft grind under your feet and the dazzling blank ahead. Nor, for that matter, could he imagine the hot-aches that followed, the delicious yet excruciating dethawing.

This is so evocative, I can feel the snow underfoot and see the blinding whiteness and feel the ache of defrosting in a warm room...


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you liked it! I think it's wonderful - unjustifiably overlooked among Cresswell's work. And you're right about how visual it is, and that image of the steel birds always gave me the creeps!

Michele said...

And I'm very grateful to you for the recommendation ! I'm now trying to find some studies of Cresswell's books - it looks like the journal, Children's Literature in Education is the best source - shame I'm no longer a subscriber !