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the family under the bridge

27 march 2016

The Family under the Bridge remains a pleasant read for advanced-elementary kids, nearly 60 years after winning Newbery Honor status. It's perhaps most notable now for splendid, sympathetic illustrations by Garth Williams, but the text is appealing and perceptive.

The Family under the Bridge is in the still-viable genre where kids befriend a homeless person, a plot that teachers and librarians seem happy to endorse as long as no kid tries it in real life. Unlike most entries in that genre, Natalie Savage Carlson's story is told from the homeless person's perspective. Armand is a Paris clochard – Carlson calls him a "hobo" – whose character note is that he's not fond of kids. Of course, when three homeless children (not to mention the dog) move under his favorite Seine bridge, Armand softens in a big hurry.

The novel is a Christmas story of sorts – Armand even knows Father Christmas, who's played in one of the big Paris department stores by a fellow clochard. Gypsies and other street friends of Armand's help the children and their mother through the worst of their initial homelessness. Finally Armand gets a job that comes with an apartment, and he and his newly-adopted family have a home at last. (With him as grandfather, needless to say, not as stepfather.)

Homelessness seems of the option in Armand's Paris. There's plenty of work, and one is only a clochard by choice. Yet though there's little grittiness in this street life, Carlson presents real problems exigently enough. The children's mother is working, but can't make rent without a male breadwinner. A glint of tough feminism shows through the sentiment of the story. Armand turns out to be a marshmallow, but what if the mother had fallen afoul of a more predatory man?

Kids aren't supposed to ask these questions, but fictions never stop doing cultural work even when they're pitched to fourth-grade reading levels.

Carlson, Natalie Savage. The Family under the Bridge. Illustrated by Garth Williams. 1958. New York: Scholastic, 1990.