Linda Sargent is a writer who works as a publisher's reader and as a freelance reminiscence advisor. She has published short stories and articles and her first novel, Paper Wings, appeared in 2010; she is also the author of Words and Wings, a training guide to creative reminiscence work, available as a free download from her website. Below, Linda discusses Mem Fox's Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge.
Linda Sargent on Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox
Perhaps I should have chosen Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby after all; surely there's more fodder, more literary class, more of it. Plus: I taught it to a bunch of A level students 30 years ago and so have a usefully annotated copy in my own (unusually) tiny hand-writing, telling me what I can say, and still with strong echoes of the passion I felt for it then, and still do. Ah, too easy, though.
Instead, it has to be Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Julie Vivas, and never out of print since it was first published in 1984; not bad going for a picture book about a small boy who helps an old lady retrieve, at least momentarily, some of her lost memories. The premise could result in something saccharine and sentimental, a touch patronizing, even.
It doesn't, isn't.
The book came, as with so many, in the form of a gift from a friend and colleague when we were working together on various reminiscence projects back in the 1990s. She reckoned, correctly, that it caught exactly what we were trying to do at the time with some older people and their carers; using objects to help trigger often deeply buried or lost memories. Tricky territory always, but this story shows, to my mind, more effectively than so many manuals ever could, the empathetic and tender caring that ought to be at the heart of any such exploration and why it works so well when training others in this field.
Wilfrid lived next door to an old people's home and knew all the people who lived there. Now that would be wonderful in itself, but it looks as if this story is set in Australia, so maybe things are different there, or perhaps it's a wishful ideal. Not only did he know them, he also knew what they were best at: 'Mrs. Jordan who plays the organ... Mr. Hosking who told him scary stories... Mr. Tippet who was crazy about cricket...' and so on. He especially liked Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper because she had a big name like him and he told her all his secrets. Then one day he heard his parents call her a 'poor old thing' because she had lost her memory. Of course he wanted to know - truly know - what a memory could be. His father's 'something you remember' just wasn't enough and, if you think about it, would never be enough on its own to make a story, or a person's life.
So Wilfrid asked his friends next door and they came up with the kind of list he and most readers would recognize; 'something warm... something from long ago... something that makes you laugh... something that makes you cry... something as precious as gold...' And off he set to find such things from his own house: 'seashells, a comical puppet on a string, his grandfather's medal, a freshly laid egg, his football'. He took them to Miss Nancy and she started to remember some of the times from her childhood - and here Julie Vivas's softly rich pinks, ochre, blues and greens, and the apparently simple transition from old lady to a little girl, effortlessly seem to animate the text, bringing the past into the present as Wilfrid shared his objects with Miss Nancy and she shared her memories and secrets with him.
The process is not always charming and straightforward, as is unflinchingly shown here when Miss Nancy remembered her brother '... who had gone to the war and never returned...'; but what the book does is to show with both colour and clarity how stories work, where they come from in the truthful essence of our past, how losing them is dangerous (or manufacturing them, as with poor Gatsby, potentially corrosive and deadly). Wilfrid and Gatsby share a kind of innocence. Wilfrid's, though, comes from a sense of wanting to share and to help his friend; Gatsby's objects (those shirts!) are lures which prove to be ultimately hollow and destructive.
The astute Michel de Montaigne observes: 'It seems that the soul loses itself in itself when shaken and disturbed unless given something to grasp onto; and so we must always provide it with an object to butt up against and to act upon.'
The story of Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge illuminates this most powerfully, using just a few words and pictures to great and enduring effect. It's a book I have passed on to many people over the years since it first came into my hands.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]