“Between these children and myself there was a vast difference. When they do anything foolish there is a hand stretched out, and they are picked up if they fall. If I fell I should go down, down, down, and I might not be able to pick myself up again. I was afraid. I knew the dangers that beset me.”
I used to read over and over again the same books when I was little and never got bored with them; for example, Heart by Edmondo De Amicis, and Heidi by Johanna Spyri. These classics were all hauled by my mother from bookshops and libraries and awarded to me when I had full marks in quizzes and language dictations. She’s not well-read but always had such an amusing taste in picking “the best cows which produced the finest quantity of milk (books in this case) without any prior knowledge of cattle” (including The Witches by Roald Dahl). I then had chances to cultivate notions on moral beauty of how to be a good human and also unleash my imaginations beyond the real world.
Nobody’s Boy (Sans Famille) by Hector Malot was one of my favourites books in childhood. I read the Chinese version and twenty years later the English version on Project Gutenberg (unfortunately it’s not available in my local library). Re-reading Nobody’s Boy not only arouses some of my childhood memories but also realises how benevolent and conscientious Hector Malot was regarding constructing plots for his novel. Coming back to this book I regard it a tribute and gratitude towards this fantastic author because he really understood children of his contemporaries, which is still relevant today in nurturing little ones’ minds and forever pursuing the ideal of justice, equality and beauty in them.
“I love that child, and he loves me. The apprenticeship in the life that I give him is good for him, better, far better, than he would have with you. You would give him an education, that is true; you would form his mind, but not his character. It is the hardships of life that alone can do that.”
Nobody’s Boy is a story of self-actualisation. Setting the backdrop under the veneer of hospitable roof amidst a small village in France, Remi lived with his foster parents. Although poor, he was well-provided and treated comfortably by Mother Barberin until one day his foster-father, who was a bricklayer, came back from the city due to an accident at the construction site.
“I was a foundling. But until I was eight years of age I thought I had a mother like other children, for when I cried a woman held me tightly in her arms and rocked me gently until my tears stopped falling. I never got into bed without her coming to kiss me, and when the December winds blew the icy snow against the window panes, she would take my feet between her hands and warm them, while she sang to me.”
Under straitened circumstances, Remi was sold to an enigmatic Italian strolling player named Vitalis and began the journey across France alongside other phenomenal performers – three dogs (Signor Capi, Zerbino, Miss Dulcie) and a pet monkey (Pretty-Heart) which Vitalis owned. The recounting of the story through Remi was moving. His sincerity came alive on paper teeming with optimism in withstanding trials and tribulations while earning their living each day through performances across different villages in France. He was abundant with reverence and respectability towards one another, lovely attributes which were inadvertently passed on by his master Vitalis and the animals along the incessant tramps through the wintry weather.
“We started early the next morning. The sky was blue and a light wind had come up in the night and dried all the mud. The birds were singing blithely in the trees and the dogs scampered around us. Now and again Capi stood up on his hind paws and barked into my face, two or three times. I knew what he meant. He was my friend. He was intelligent, and he understood every thing, and he knew how to make you understand. In his tail only was more wit and eloquence than in the tongue or in the eyes of many people.”
Among all, the relationships which induced my tears were the love and friendship that Remi had with Master Vitalis and Capi the white dog. Vitalis was a genteel character who was not in a high up social position but always presented with a gleam of gentility and nobility on the inside; his paternal love towards Remi was obscure yet his actions was loving; and Capi with other animals that performed with Remi could just be as affectionate and caring as humans.
“During our long tramps he gave me lessons, first on one subject then on another. On very cold days he shared his coverings with me, on hot days he had always helped me carry the bags, and the various things which I was supposed to carry. And when we ate he never served me the worst piece, keeping the best for himself; on the contrary, he shared it equally, the good and the bad. It is true, he sometimes pulled my ears more roughly than I liked, but if I needed the correction, what of that? In a word, I loved him, and he loved me.”
Apart from that, Nobody’s Boy sketches walks of life among the upper and lower classes of France in the nineteenth century – peasants, colliers, merchants, and gardeners; as well as city of London from lawyers and clerks off in Lincoln’s Inn to peddlers from Bethnal Green (the Gin Lane). Overall, Nobody’s boy is heartwarming and an enchanting story about a boy’s personal growth and belief in faith through struggle and survival of the hardships amidst people he encountered, who were filled with bountiful virtues. The novel also implies that parental personality could exert considerable influence on their offspring. If you have children, please introduce them this book or read it to them!