Children of the World tells the story of a woman of sixty in Waycross, Georgia, who on a certain day must make a profound decision about her life. This woman, Margaret Barker, has grown up in a poor neighborhood of Jacksonville, Florida, but at twelve been rescued from this life by a wealthy grandmother who operates a beautiful dairy farm in Waycross.
Yet Margaret has never been able to reconcile the two parts of her life, and this story is in part a tale of rich and poor in one family, of success and failure, as the world sees such things, and a womans pain for having abandoned those who could not succeed in life.
A four-page essay by the author on the writing of this book was attached to the original publication packet and reprinted in several places. It is excerpted below.
Reflections on the writing of a novel
By Martha Stephens
I grew up in south Georgia, in a rather pretty town called Waycross, where Children of the World takes place. My parents were struggling people who both had had peculiar hardships in life before they were married and were not sure where they belonged in the class system of that little town. Children of the World is in large part the story of their marriage, which was full of storm and crisis -- though not always so.
My fathers father lost everything in the depression. He had owned a large general store on the edge of town, but it had been foreclosed, and the family home almost lost as well. So my father was a man frightened of almost everything and always half convinced that he too would lose out, in some humiliating way, in the economic contest of life.
But it is on the consciousness of the mother in this tale, the woman called Margaret Barker, that this narrative is focussed. In my mothers life there was a dark secret, one that I think made me feel, more than anything else, that I would some day set down her story.
All during my childhood, I remember journeys of a most unusual kind to a place we never spoke of in Waycross and which was known only in our immediate family -- visits, that is, to a little slum cottage on Eighth Street in Jacksonville. From time to time my mother would need to go there to spend the day, usually on a Saturday, and she would take us children with her.
On those trips of two hours by car, we went down to see my mothers mother and the three grown children who still lived with her. These children were all seriously retarded, and my grandmother herself was not quite of normal ability, not quite right, as the saying in the family was. My grandfather lived with his second wife and child in a cottage next door, a place just as small and almost as dilapidated. He had a job in a fertilizer plant and cared for both families, or attempted to, all his life. Every morning, including the last one he lived, he crossed over from one weedy back yard to the other with a rusty old basin and a razor, to shave the heavy beards of his two retarded sons.
You would almost have to know Children of the World to know what these visits were like, these trips down to this other world. But I recall that at one time there was in my grandmothers house no door on the bathroom -- someone had rigged up a crooked sheet. There seemed to be no chair you could actually sit in. Yet life went on. My grandmother was a jolly and effusive person, but quite emaciated ... she seemed to subsist entirely on cigarettes and coca-cola, and the gossip of the street.
My mother did what she could on her small income to help out, and she constantly appealed to others in the family as well, her wealthy grandmother, for instance, the mother of the grandmother in Jacksonville. But the others felt, including my father, that the situation was beyond anyones repair and that my mother should close this door behind her once and for all and live out her separate life in Waycross.
And yet my mother did not close this door.
As sorrowful as all this may seem, I believe readers will see that at the end of this story, and rather late in Margaret Barkers life, there is a triumph of a kind over these circumstances and what Margaret has felt as a severe weakness in herself, a failure to cope, emotionally, with those little households in Jacksonville, to know how to feel about these afflicted figures of her earliest life.
There is in this book a lot of exacting detail, but also memory and flashback and brooding dreams. But there is laughter too, and hope for the human race, because some people do struggle for others -- Margaret herself, after all -- and try to show that humankind is not a beast.
But who are the children of the world this story is about? First, of course, the ones in the song at the front of the book -- Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world -- which is sung on Sunday nights by the children in Margarets church; but also the little children we all in fact were before we were shattered into adulthood; and certainly, the children of Jacksonville, Margarets afflicted siblings, and by extension again, simply all of us, who are child-like too in our helplessness, our mortality, and our ignorance of the worlds purpose for us....Continua