On Monday and Tuesday I read The Kitchen Madonna by Rumer Godden to Isabella and Sophia. (Ben and Anthony listened a bit too, but were in and out. The story was too slow to captivate them for that long.) This is one of my favorite Godden stories and I was pleased to see the girls were likewise captivated.
It seems in some Catholic circles Rumer Godden is known only for her novels about nuns: In This House of Brede, Five for Sorrow Ten for Joy, Black Narcissus and maybe The Dark Horse. But as excellent as these books are (Brede is one of my favorite books of all time) that kind of story is all that Godden writes and limiting yourself to them is to sell Godden short.
As captivating as her stories about nuns are her tales of outcasts. Usually, but not always, stories for children and young adults, the child or adolescent hero or heroine who finds a way to connect with the world, often through an experience of beauty.
In The Kitchen Madonna Godden follows a pattern she uses often, a pair of outcasts who need each other– as in Bella’s favorite Christmas book, The Story of Holly and Ivy, where the title characters are an orphan girl and an unwanted doll. Gregory is a young boy who just doesn’t fit in. His family loves him, but doesn’t understand him. Both his parents work and the children are often left to the mercy of a revolving line of helpers. Gregory yearns for stability, for home comforts, for belonging.
Marta, is a Ukranian refugee who years and years ago lost her family, her village, her life. She is resigned to a life of service and doesn’t really think she’s unhappy until Gregory and his little sister Janet probe her past and make her feel the loss of her home anew. The symbol for all that she has lost is the image of the Madonna and Child that used to sit in her family’s kitchen. Gregory decides he has to get Marta a Madonna. But of course he’s only a nine year old boy and that’s a great task. It’s interesting how often Godden writes these stories of children frustrated by their powerlessness in an adult world who nevertheless find ways of becoming the focal point of change for the adults around them, sometimes for an entire community (as in Mr. McFadden’s Hallowe’en).
Gregory reminds me very much of Nona, the heroine of Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. She too finds competence and community through her quest to make an authentic Japanese dolls house for the dolls she and her cousins received from a great Aunt. Her need to build the dolls house drives her to find experts and helpers who become friends as they are drawn into her act of creation. It’s interesting how here, too, it is an encounter with the artifacts and art of a foreign culture which creates that bridge to the local community.
I love the moment when Gregory and Janet escape to a church in a rainstorm and discover an image of Our Lady of Czestochowa. It’s there in so many Godden novels: that moment when the protagonist suddenly washes up in a Catholic church. In An Episode of Sparrows, Pippa Passes, In This House of Brede, and probably others I can’t think of right now. In the Church they have an experience of beauty, otherworldliness, and prayer breaking into the everyday and ordinary life. Beauty, the need for beauty, the need to make beautiful things draws Godden’s outcasts into relationships of necessity which become relationships of love and genuine heart-breaking self-sacrifice. There’s something to ponder there.
Bella told me the book makes her feel like she wants to make something. As soon as I finished the last page, Sophie had the book out of my hands and was paging through it and telling herself a version of the story. It makes me want to make things as well. To create a Madonna as beautiful as the one in the story even though I already have a couple truly beautiful icons. Yet again I want to go buy a red lamp and make my icon space a true “good place”.
I have this beautiful icon my parents gave me and I put it up in the dining room, the center of the house, and with the shelf with our relics and other images, but somehow it lacks… something. A little red lamp? Not going to happen with my crew. That would be asking for trouble. And even if I did have one, I’m still not sure it would feel like Marta’s “good place.”