Top critical review
56 people found this helpful
Bridge to terra francais
on March 12, 2005
What ever happened to the good old days when children and tramps could live under the bridges of Paris, France in peaceful harmony? Well now we can return once again those halcyon days with Natalie Savage Carlson's Newbery Honor winning little book, "The Family Under the Bridge". A simple remarkably upbeat little tale, it defines what it means to be a family while telling the tale of an adorable homeless man and his unwilling adoption by three fatherless children. As storybooks go, this one has aged a bit poorly in light of its child abandonment and transient issues. But it has a good heart and a fine little story. I'm not going to put it on a pedestal or say that in 200 years it should be remembered as one of the top 100 children's books of the 20th century. But it's cute and probably has legions of fans who remember it from their own youth.
Hobos may come and hobos may go, but Armand of Paris isn't going anywhere. He loves his beautiful French city with its history and ample bridges to sleep under. With winter fast approaching, Armand's just on his way to put his ever moving home under his favorite bridge when he receives a nasty shock. There, camped out under a thin blanket, are three red-haired children. Armand doesn't trust children as a rule. His greatest fear is that he'll grow to love them and then no longer be the freewheeling king of the road that he currently is. These fears prove to be well founded when the kids adopt Armand as an unofficial grandfatherly figure and go with him all around and about the city. Their dream is to someday have a home of their own, and with Armand's help and a little gumption, that dream starts to look a little more possible every day.
The story's cute enough, with Armand as a roly-poly harmless figure leading the kids hither and thither throughout Paris. There are some wonderful sequences with a traveling band of gypsies (who, remarkably, are exempt from that stereotypical magic-creature label they've acquired in hundreds of other children's books). The gypsies are presented as regular folks, which I appreciated hugely. Also, the book has a satisfying ending that all children hearing it will appreciate. Carlson's narrative voice is affecting and Garth Williams's illustrations (you may best remember him as the illustrator of the "Little House" books as well as "The Cricket In Times Square") are striking.
But then there are the problems that a book written in 1958 must face. Now in this story, the mother character regularly abandons her children, without food, under a bridge in busy Paris. She does this, rather than put them in a home where they could get (oh, I dunno) warm clothes and food, because of a fanatical instinct to keep the family together. I can understand this on some level. No one likes to be separated from their relations. However, even after the mother makes the acquaintance of Armand (who she does not trust for a number of reasons), she still leaves her children with him all day. She does not give them any food (they have to eat Armand's), or toys, or really anything to do but follow a fellow they don't even know around and about. When he feeds them during the day by urging them to sing and then collecting money from strangers, she's incensed. Better that her kids go hungry than (gasp, shudder) SING! If the bad parenting going on in this story weren't enough, the idea that people are homeless simply because they are lazy is a bit worn as well. Pretty much every tramp in this book is homeless because he or she wants to be. Plenty get work at a drop of a hat, and at the end of the tale Armand goes from a fellow with zero job experience to the superintendent of a building. And all because he's finally decided to get a job. So when your kids walk down the street and see homeless people asking for food or money, you can bet they'll rest assured that those people are there because they're just too lazy to get hired somewhere. What a lovely lesson to learn from a book.
Ugh. So there's that. It's a nice tale, don't get me wrong. But since I didn't grow up with it myself, I haven't a nostalgia for it that so many others do. I can see its charms and I can see its flaws. I prefer its charms, but I can't help but point out where it goes awry. All in all, it's a fine little story and I don't mean to imply that by reading it your kids will suddenly become callous towards those in need. Just bear in mind what the book is saying.