Noel Virtue: The Redemption Of Elsdon Bird
When a novel centres around child who has a hard life, I can’t help thinking that it’s a fictional take on the author’s own upbringing. I could find scant information on Noel Virtue, but his first novel, The Redemption Of Elsdon Bird (1987), would appear to have details hinting that the Elsdon Bird of the title is a riff on the author: both grew up in Wellington, have a passion for telling stories, and zookeeping gets a mention, too. That he has written a volume of autobiography called Once A Brethren Boy points in that direction, too.
But speculation aside, this novel dealing with a child growing up in rural New Zealand is a gem of a read and, while being reminiscent of novels like Ian Cross’ The God Boy and Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, it feels fresher because it’s told in the third person, and therefore the confusion of the main character in the world around him isn’t communicated via his naive narration, something that feels all too common in this type of novel.
Sacked from his job for trying to “save” his coworkers, Elsdon Bird’s father finds employment as a supervisor in a rural factory, a position that comes with a house. Elsdon is looking forward to the new place but he finds that things aren’t all that green on the other side. For one, his parents are hardcore Brethren and their rejection of all that’s fun in life confuses this enthusiastic ten year old, leaving him able only to confide in the animals around him. And as his parents’ fundamentalist values escalate, Elsdon becomes the focus of their frustrations, frequently ending up on the wrong side of uncalled for beatings:
…uncertain that Jesus could be his friend when his mum gave him hidings on His behalf – ‘The Lord’s so angry at you!’ his mum would yell as she beat his legs and bottom with the razor-strop – Elsdon found his world a confused, lonely place. No wonder he dawdled all the way home from school…
While life doesn’t get any better for Elsdon, the poor lad remains chirpy throughout. With friends, toys, and books all taken away from him, all he’s left with is his imagination. But with little inspiring it, it’s a wonder he can make it from one day to the next. Dealing with all that’s bad in life marks this short novel out as a wonderful read: the brutal removal of everything in the boy’s life proves Elsdon Bird is “pretty brave” as, with unflinching optimism, he pushes on.
Although it’s in the third person, The Redemption Of Elsdon Bird‘s narration comes pretty close to telling the story from the boy’s point of view: the prose is light and easy to read and is shot through with local slang. Hidden behind its rustic charm, it tackles serious issues of religion, abuse, fanaticism, and tolerance, leaving the interpretation inferred from the story rather than being preachy, which, given Elsdon’s father and all the novel is against, would be hypocritical:
No one else on his mum’s side of the family went to the Gospel Hall. All his dad’s relatives went. His dad’s sister Aunt Biddy, who had never married, went to a Gospel Hall in Wellington. Then there was Uncle Judah, his dad’s brother, and his wife, Aunt Una. They lived up north in Masterton and were very strict.
Uncle Bryce didn’t go to any church and once told Elsdon that on Sundays he went to his best mate’s house at Titahi Bay and got shickered on beer. Elsdon pined for the day when he might be allowed to join them.
For a short novel, The Redemption Of Elsdon Bird packs a lot in, its themes popping up and recurring as life develops and then disintegrates for the Birds. The many rural locations in which it occurs give it a gothic feel, only substituting the Deep South for the southern hemisphere. Adding to this notion is the sense – and sometimes, admission – that its characters are “crook in the head”. So, for a novel that will delight and horrify in equal measure, it’s worth making a necessity of this Virtue.
November 21, 2007