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Fiction War & Military

God's Sparrows

by (author) Philip Child

introduction by James R. Calhoun

series edited by Michael Gnarowski

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Mar 2017
War & Military, Family Life, Literary
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2017
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Mar 2017
    List Price

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A new edition of Philip Child’s great Canadian novel of the First World War.

A horrifying description of war, specifically embodied in the vain and inglorious futility of the First World War, God’s Sparrows is a novel rich in compassion and firm in its faith in the human spirit. Philip Child created a Canadian family saga, a modern pilgrim’s progress in which individuals surmount the corrosive effects of brutality, maintaining their ability to love and endure under the most agonizing circumstances. His book, first published in 1937, remains as a stirring testimony to that ability. It offers profound insight into the experience of the First World War, not just as a catastrophe affecting his characters but as a crucible in which the whole of this nation found itself tried.

About the authors

Philip Child is the author of five novels, one collection of shorter poems, and one book-length narrative poem. He won the 1949 Governor General’s Award for Mr. Ames Against Time. A veteran of the First World War, he taught for many years at the University of Toronto.

Philip Child's profile page

James Calhoun is the archivist for the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Museum and Archives. A writer with a particular interest in the Canadian literature of the First World War, he is the co-author of the introduction to Peregrine Acland’s All Else Is Folly with Brian Busby and the author of the introduction to Philip Child’s God’s Sparrows. He lives in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia.


James R. Calhoun's profile page

Michael Gnarowski co-edited The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, compiled The Concise Bibliography of E nglish Canadian Literature, and edited the Critical Views on Canadian Writers Series for McGraw-Hill Ryerson. He has written for Encyclopedia Americana, The Canadian Encyclopedia, The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Biography, and The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry. Gnarowski is professor emeritus at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Michael Gnarowski's profile page

Excerpt: God's Sparrows (by (author) Philip Child; introduction by James R. Calhoun; series edited by Michael Gnarowski)

Chapter 1

In the beginning the wizened, cone-headed, shrimp-coloured little bundle of flesh tied with a diaper and known as Daniel Burnet Thatcher reposed like a vegetable in the midst of the family that was so much more aware of him than he of them. First he felt the fear of noise and the fear of falling, never entirely to be lost until Daniel Thatcher should lose hold and fall out of the body. Then came sight and smell. Then walking.… Pen, taking the baby by the hand walked on the snowy sidewalk and began to step high and stamp the snow off his feet; Daniel did likewise. Then came speech, and with it the binding sense of time. “Tomorrow is Christmas, Daniel, and you will see a wonderful tree, all lighted with candles.” “When is tomorrow? Is today tomorrow?” He was taken in to see the tree and his little tummy tight as a soccer football was distended with ice cream. “Do you think he will remember this, Pen?” Maud Thatcher asked her husband. “At two years? Hardly, Maud. He might remember seeing dim faces about a tree, but without recalling how he felt.…”
Dan with his brother and sister lived in Ardentinny, a square house of trimmed stone with tall stone chimneys, built on a hill so that it could overlook the town of Wellington in Ontario without too vulgarly congregating with more plebian houses. Maud Thatcher’s grandfather, Sir Cyprian Burnet, had built it early in Queen Victoria’s reign to resemble an old country manor house. It was solid and feudal looking and the very devil to heat in winter.
The children’s room on the top floor was large and full of angles and shadows caused by the slope of the gabled roof. Dan, as the oldest, slept in a four-poster with a network of cord instead of springs, sagging in the centre like a fallen cake. It stood so high that he could look down through the window upon Galinee Street leading to Wellington’s “downtown” and upon the roofs and chimneys of Wellington itself. He always went to sleep to the tinkling of a music box which faithfully repeated “Take a pair of ruby lips” over and over without having to be rewound. When the leaves fell, he used to long for the first snow, and often, going to the window at night and seeing a sheet of moonlight on the lawn, he would think snow had come. When at last it did come by stealth, always taking him by surprise, then it was glorious. He would wake up, perhaps on a Sunday morning, to find the snow clinging in dazzling white clouds to the branches and covering the roofs of the town, and the air coming in at the open window made his cheeks tingle as he lay listening to the spitter-spangle of church bells playing “Hark the Herald!” …
It was Pen’s custom to pronounce a special sort of grace at breakfast: “Children, may we all use this day well. Amen.” This gave one a sense of dedication to the day, though as a doubter he conscientiously refrained from associating Deity with his wish. To himself he always added: “May I not lose my temper with Daniel. If I have to punish him, may I punish him dispassionately. Amen.”
He had made up his mind to launch his children into the twentieth century unchristened, “with no millstones from the past about their necks.” This decision Maud had bowed to — for the time being; in fact, she never opposed him directly in anything. But she could never understand why Pen had to torture himself by thinking differently from other people. It only made one unhappy. When there was a thing to do, something that people did — like christening, why could one not simply do it without worrying?
“The children are growing older, Pen,” said Maud one Sunday at breakfast. “I have been thinking over what you said about their being ‘undisciplined little barbarians,’ and I think you may be right … wouldn’t it be wise to take them to church — a little?” Once, a year before, during Pen’s absence, Maud had taken Dan and Alastair, but the experiment had not been exactly a success and Maud’s nerves, though strong, had only held out until the second hymn.
After a moment’s hesitation, Pen agreed. After all, what harm could it do? He groaned. “I’ll have to put on my ‘Sunday-go-to-meeting’ clothes.” This homely joke belonged to Pen’s father and had its roots in the past; for Pen, the meeting house had long since changed to “the church.”
The news was broken to the children.
Alastair was frankly overcome by a sudden illness, which he did very well, and upon being ruthlessly put to bed, resigned himself, merely asking for the mechanical windmill and the box of British grenadiers. But the other children, never knowing their own minds as well as Alastair, fortified besides by the knowledge that going to church was a grown-up thing to do, submitted to being dressed in their best. Presently, they set forth in the victoria, behind the coachman wearing in his silk hat the Burnet colours.
They were late. All the rear pews were occupied, so they had to sit under the pulpit. “Now be quiet children and listen,” whispered Maud. It was all right while the choir marched in singing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” which gave Joanna a glorious thumpy feeling like watching the circus parade that time. But after a short time nature began to assert itself. Dan’s mouth dropped open and he began to twist and turn and invent things for his fingers to do. Joanna, with a woman’s social sense, twisted less, but she stood up when others sat down, and when others sat down, she stood up and sat down, and finally, during a lull in matins, she whispered sibilantly, “Mother, why am I here?” Dan began to punch his father gently, and at last folded himself jackknife fashion over the back of the pew in front.
Ssh, dear,” whispered Maud fearfully.
Why did you have to whisper in church? The clergyman boomed down at you from the high platform that was like a turret in a castle. “Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
“Father, I’m tired. Can’t we go now?”
“In a minute, Daniel; have patience.”
“I can’t, father.”
“Think of something nice, Dan,” said Maud.
The clergyman was reading the first lesson from the Book of Job. Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul? “I am Job,” thought Pen. “On me is put the curse of unbelief.”
A canticle filled the church with thundering squadrons of praise. Praise him and magnify him forever. Maud was thinking of that poet (she never could remember the names of authors) who said the Benedicite was like a wave turning over? Kipling was it? “Must tell Joanna that.” Dan was pulling in turn each of the buttons of his father’s coat. It was rhythmical to do that; it helped when you turned being bored into rhythm. Pen, unconscious of his nervous habit, fidgeted and muttered under his breath, “Damn fool! Damn fool!” The Benedicite rolled on with its inexorable praise. First the natural phenomena, then the creatures of the earth from the whales to children of men, then “O let Israel bless the Lord,” with a change of tune that gave one a new lease of life. Asiatic imagery for Anglo-Saxons, thought Pen. They had got to the beasts and cattle, and after another quarter of a page they could sit down and Dan’s patience might revive. A woman with a tinny soprano lifted up her praise with immolating vigour just behind Pen’s ear, dominating everyone else in church, imposing her ego. These little egotisms of people bothered Pen, he could never see beyond them. Maud’s voice, “Dan, dear, don’t wriggle!” Praise him and magnify him forever. A part of Pen’s mind not under control, thinking of Dan, said fervently, “Not forever!” It was like those moments, he thought, when you are in a cab on the way to the station. You will miss the train. The coachman flicks his horse and it giddaps into a shambling trot while mentally you push the cab to its destination.
At last the third hymn, the one before the sermon. You could go out. Hats and coats. Dan’s hat mysteriously missing, to be finally retrieved from under the next pew but one.… They are out in the frosty air in the carriage going home. The children at last are quiet, for there is always something fresh to look at when you go for a ride. “The choir sings beautifully, don’t you think?” remarked Maud. “The children behaved very well considering —”
Pen felt worn out and church always made him morose. “It’s nice,” he said, a sense of duty reasserting itself, “to get the children into the habit of going to church.” In his own ears his voice sounded thin, not from the depths of his convictions. It can do no harm to “expose” them, he thought; it might take. And any help a man can get — The end of life, sudden darkness, oblivion.

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