Big Families – For Better or Worse

Large families have a sort of glow to them. As if being part of one is the ideal. Three books I read recently all feature large families. And whilst some of the glow is there, there is also a darker side.

This is particularly the case in the first of my selection, The Man Who Loved Crocodile Tamers by South African author, Finuala Dowling. Protagonist, Paddy Dowling, marries vivacious Vandy and together they raise eight children in their home in Cape Town, South Africa. Paddy works there as a frustrated copywriter on famous advertising campaigns, constantly longing to be a ‘real’ writer of fiction. His many children cause him great anxiety which results in explosive anger, and Paddy feels increasingly alienated by them. He turns to alcohol and declines. This fact is blamed on what we now know as PTSD from his service as a soldier in WWII.

His biographer and daughter, Gina Dowling, is similarly fraught with the insecurities and depressions of a writer’s life. ‘Fragments from a writer’s diary’ are interspersed with the actual writing product, the main story, and these sections reveal a woman who hates her day job and wonders if the book will be any good. The characters make for unpleasant ones, ones I wasn’t drawn to. Although I didn’t enjoy feeling this way, Dowling’s spare style of writing left a lasting impression on me. Its flowing simplicity is enough for the reader to get the gist. It helps to retain pathos and belies the amount of research that must have gone into such a detailed story. The Man Who Loved Crocodile Tamers is cleverly and beautifully written.  

In The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett I encountered a much happier version of large families. This one is also not without its difficulties, however. For Mr and Mrs Ruggles – a dustman and washerwoman respectively – money is in short supply, and all of their seven children cause them anxiety. The first seven chapters are dedicated to each of the seven children, while the last three chapters cover a family outing to London. The situations described often involve clothing. How it is ironed when it shouldn’t be, shrunk by mistake, lost at sea, ripped in embarrassing places, and generally endangered by mess when it should be clean. The two chapters I enjoyed best revolve around twin brothers, James and John, who join a gang that demands its members ‘have adventures’. Adventures the pair have indeed. James accidentally stows away on a ship, and John lands up in a stranger’s car and bizarrely attends a birthday party at a rich person’s house. The scrapes get more and more involved, so that I found myself wincing as I read. But the family is a loving one, and there is nothing dark or seriously scary. The Family from One End Street is a delightful, funny read for children. It won the Carnegie medal for children’s literature in 1957.

Lastly, and briefly, the third book I read featuring a large family, is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J K Rowling. Harry’s best friend is Ronald Weasley. Compared to Harry’s dreadful aunt, uncle and cousin with whom Harry lives, Ronald’s family are down-to-earth, caring and generous people/wizards and witches. But, as with the Ruggles of The Family at One End Street, the Weasleys lack money. Five of their seven children attend Hogwarts School of Magic, and clothing, supplies and books are always bought with great difficulty. Interestingly, all the children in the Ruggles family and in the Weasley family have red hair. This adds to their being seen as different.

So, from love, support and togetherness, to money troubles, personality challenges and alienation, these books all showed me the glow and the darkness of large families.  

Advertisement