Remembering the lessons of an old English children’s book on God, suffering, and love

One of my favorite books as a kid was “Whistle Down the Wind” (1958) by Mary Hayley Bell.

In it, three children from a working-class English village find an escaped criminal in the barn and think he’s Jesus.

Here’s how the story starts:

I am ten, and they call me Brat.

Of course, that isn’t my right name, nobody could be christened with a name like that.

All our lousy first names are birds’ names. Don’t ask me why. I imagine our mother was keen on birds and flying, though I don’t know much about her. She flew off some years ago with this character called Peregrine. She lives in South Africa on a different kind of farm, and once in a way we get a Christmas card — which is quite useful as we keep the stamp.

Brat (real name Brambling), her 12-year-old sister Swallow, and their 7-year-old brother Merlin (who answers to the name of Poor Baby) all live with their father, Slim, on a farm in the south of England. While affectionate and curious, the children don’t have a terribly high opinion of adults. 

They don’t understand half of what the vicar says, for example, but they like him nonetheless (he lets their dogs sit in the pew with them at church). They also understand more than they know.

One morning, Brat spots Poor Baby streaking across the yard toward the barn with a hunk of cake. Five-year-old Elizabeth, a neighbor who is “frightfully religious” also shows up, looking ghastly.

“It’s Jesus,” she whispered over her shoulder. “Jesus is come”…

 Her whisper was so small I could hardly hear.

“What d’you mean?”

“He’s here. He’s arrived.”

Brat pictures a baby — though where are the wise men and shepherds? Instead, there’s a fully-grown man in the barn, lying in the hay.

“Hullo,” he greets Brat without surprise or alarm. “Are you another of them?” She can’t see his face in the gloom but she likes his voice.

He’s gaunt, hunted, ravenous, cryptic.

“Are you Jesus,” I asked Him.

“I’m not allowed to say,” He answered…

“How did you get here?” I asked him.

“Walked. Walked and walked and walked…”

“Did you come from Heaven?”

“In the beginning —”

“And you’ve walked ever since?”

He sighed and closed his eyes. The thought of it must have exhausted Him.

He shares their distrust of grown-ups: 

“Don’t tell them,” He said; “not till I’ve got on my feet.”

The children start putting things together. Jesus would be tired. Jesus would be in trouble with the authorities. Jesus would make his way to a manger which, in this case, includes flocks of doves and a newborn calf.  

They assume the wounds on his feet are nail holes and tend them with sticking plaster. Swallow washes his socks in the dairy. Over the next few days, they smuggle him food, booze, and toothpaste.

The man tells the children they restore his faith in human nature. He sympathizes with their lack of a mother and mentions that his own mother “cried a great deal” when he was young.

Some of the other neighborhood kids nose their way into the barn and are pledged to keep the Big Secret. In fact they’ll spread the news to children all around the countryside, they decide. If the grown-ups come to get him, they’ll defend him, hundreds of them.

“After all, the grown-ups crucified Him, didn’t they?” Crikky asked, and we had to agree.

But at some point they overhear the grown-ups talking. There’s an escaped convict in the area.

The children weigh his alleged crimes — which are serious — and on the off-chance he’s guilty, pretty much instantly exonerate him. They focus instead on the Judas in their midst — a child narc called Amos Nodge — and decide one thing they hate is a sneak. The other thing they can’t bear is to see something hunted down and caught.

“Grown-ups don’t believe much in Jesus, do they?” Brat muses.

The children do, and they know all about the Garden of Gethsemane. When their friend asks to be alone for a few minutes as the cops approach, they assume he wants to pray and loyally assure him that, unlike the other disciples, they won’t fall asleep.

“Are you Him, or are you who they’re looking for?” asked Crikky.

“How do you know I’m not both?” He asked quietly.

I won’t spoil the ending except to say that Jesus vanishes from their midst — but not before drawing a little black cross on the wall with his thumb: 

“Like a sign on a tree, to show which way to go if you wanted to follow.”

I came away being reminded that children know all about suffering and love.

And there’s a darned good chance Jesus smoked.

A film based on the book, starring Alan Bates and Hayley Mills, the author’s daughter, was released in 1961. Though not generally available in the U.S., if you can get hold of a copy, it’s also a complete gem. 

 


Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books. For more, visit heather-king.com.



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