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Antonello da Messina, Virgin of the Annunciation (detail)
Review Fiction

An Unusual War Story

Sally Read

Clare Kipps, Sold for a Farthing (Frederick Muller, 1953).

It’s one of the frustrating ironies of a life of faith that hidden acts of love—both of humans and of God—are often, well, hidden. God knows every hair on our heads and we are worth more than many sparrows. Yet many of us walk painfully unaware of God’s paternal and scrupulous micro-knowledge of each and every one of us. But this week I happened on an old book that seems like a direct message of love from the Divine. The fact it’s so small, unfashionable and out of print, but with a devoted following, confirms this in me.

Sold for a Farthing by Clare Kipps is a quick read, and the author says she has no pretensions to ‘literary style’ (if only more writers felt that way!). The book is a factual account of how Kipps, while working as an air-raid warden in London in World War Two, finds a newborn baby sparrow on her doorstep half dead, takes him in and nurses him with no realistic hope for his survival. The sparrow lives, though he has a damaged wing and cannot fly well, and she keeps him in her home where she lives alone. The two, woman and bird, develop a close, loving relationship, sharing a bed and establishing routines that he learns quickly (when she returns from her nights out as air-raid warden he breakfasts with her, then leads her to bed where he snuggles down with her to sleep). The book is full of winning anecdotes about his moods, love for her, jealousy towards other people who intrude on their Eden; how he sits on her hand while she plays the piano and sings in a very unusual way for a sparrow. He lives to the astonishing age of twelve, having become quite famous in Blitz-weary London, performing card tricks and singing to audiences (though he retired early as he became quite shy, and he was never forced into doing anything he didn’t want to do).

The book does not blab its Christian heart noisily. Kipps merely points out that when a photograph was taken of the sparrow apparently reading a book, the developed photo shows his beak pointing to the lines: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing, yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father?”

The silence in the book, of course, is the war. Kipps refuses to be drawn into what any other writer might have dwelt on: the carnage, flames, torture, homelessness, pain, and hunger that were crippling Europe. As air-raid warden she doubtless saw terrible things. But, at least for the duration of this short book, her eyes (in the divine sense that God’s eyes know every hair on our head) look only on this tiny, disabled bird. She charts his behavior, moods and diet with a mother’s lyrical yet precise attention. He enchants her. She describes his plumage with great delight and finds fluttering beauty in the deformed ‘fan wing’ that does not work.

When he has a stroke in his later years, and loses his feathers and his song, how many in our society would think of euthanasia—for animals and for people? But she and a veterinarian devotedly care for him, feeding him champagne as a last resort which peps him up and restores him to a last happy Christmas with her. One day he falls asleep in her hand for hours before waking to look at her, giving one last trill as salutation, and dying of old age.

Coming at the end of a war, with the knowledge of the untimely and grisly deaths of millions written into our collective soul, what gentle Godly reproach there seems to be in this simple story.

And in our age, when mothers I know routinely lament staying at home to take care of young children as ‘boring'. When women abort children because they are considered imperfect in some way, the story is instructive about God’s precise eye, his paradoxical smallness and the smallness he asks of us. As a talented pianist, Kipps was able to appreciate the nature of two distinct songs that the sparrow sang, and transcribed one of them as sheet music. Her endeavour reminded me of my own involved enchantment with my baby daughter—the mother’s ability to see an epic in a tiny life was what enabled Kipps to recognize the individual, mathematical structure of an aria in birdsong. How much we miss and trample on. How we should remember that God sees an epic in every one of us, despite our inescapable smallness.

Even as well-intentioned Christians we can become blinded by the global issues, the seemingly pressing need for sweeping heroic gestures; we think we can save the world. Perhaps what God asks of us is simply care of the smallest, and reverence for the creation near to our hands. And, crucially, to allow Him to care for us.

Sally Read is a British poet and writer living near Rome. She is the author of Night’s Bright Darkness (Ignatius Press)

Humanum: Issues in Family, Culture & Science
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