Few authors capture the magic of childhood as well as Rumer Godden.
Until a year ago, I’d have argued the finest example is Godden’s Christmastime classic, The Story of Holly and Ivy, dual-narrated by a lonely orphan girl and a lonely doll without an owner. Now, though, I have to admit another Godden story, The Kitchen Madonna, might just give Holly and Ivy a run for their money.
Like its more famous cousin, The Kitchen Madonna centers on a child’s loneliness. Nine-year-old Gregory is quietly drowning in the whirlpool of his parents’ frantic careers while they struggle to navigate the rising sea of post-WWII London. No one has time for Gregory. No one listens to him. No one understands how he feels. No one, that is, until his mother hires a new kitchen maid, Marta.
Marta is a Ukrainian refugee. To Gregory’s parents, she may be odd, untidy, and hard to understand. But to Gregory, she is perfect. She’s a constant, calming presence in the kitchen, something warm to come home to after school each night. Keeping Marta part of the family soon becomes the top priority in the little boy’s mind.
There’s a problem, though: Marta misses her homeland. Most of all, she misses the pervasive religious art of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Every Ukrainian household, she explains to Gregory, has its own ‘kitchen Madonna,’ a cherished icon of the Christ Child and His Mother. Gregory’s modern, agnostic, London kitchen has none, and its absence makes Marta very sad.
That’s all right, Gregory thinks. If Marta wants an icon, I’ll make her one.
Does he have the faintest idea how to go about this? No. Of course not.
Does he push on and succeed, despite all obstacles? Yes. A bursting, shining, heartwarming ‘yes.’
You may say it’s unrealistic. Friends, I know it’s unrealistic. But I don’t care. I glean too much joy from watching this shy, unhappy little boy break out of his shell. Once he realizes his new friend Marta felt as lost and misunderstood as he does, he moves heaven and earth to give her what she needs. To conjure beauty out of emptiness. To create something out of nothing. In the process, he discovers a new purpose as an artist; and a new reverence for Jesus and Mary, to top it off. Try to tell me that doesn’t make you a little misty in the eyes.
The Kitchen Madonna was never meant to be realistic . . . it was meant to be magic.
The love of a little child, after all, is very like magic.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Prescott is a former homeschool student and current graduate student, pursuing a master’s degree in American history with a focus on immigration studies. In her (sadly limited) free time, she can usually be found listening to “Hamilton” or Celine Dion or Twenty One Pilots and dreaming up new ideas for historical fiction novels. Which, she hopes, will someday make her famous. Someday. She also blogs.