Peter Rushforth Essay - Critical Essays

Rushforth, Peter

Introduction

Rushforth, Peter 1945–

Rushforth is an English novelist. Kindergarten, his first published work, reflects on the horrors of Nazi Germany, comparing them to modern-day terrorism. Rushforth's intertwining images of fairy tales and the innocent optimism of childhood, lend an imaginative twist to the basic conflict of good and evil. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101.)

Iain Finlayson

The theme [of Kindergarten] is 'Suffer the little children' and 'the massacre of the innocents'. I'm surprised Rushforth hasn't included in his checklist of historical cruelty to children the slaughter by Herod of the firstborn. Everything else, in recent memory, is here….

[Kindergarten] is a deeply sentimental novel, slow and grave, not quite in touch with the real world. The boys' grandmother is an illustrator of children's books, the boys are musical prodigies, their German Christmas is a magical event for the youngest. There is no real horror, no violence, no terror—it is all experienced at second hand…. This distancing is itself like the fantastical remoteness of a fairy tale—the story may be experienced and integrated in the mind of an impressionable child who will take from it whatever reassurance it may have in the child's particular circumstances. But such a story only has interest or relevance insofar as it prepares the child for real life. P. S. Rushforth has composed his concerto (there is no other metaphor) with feeling, but it remains remote.

Iain Finlayson, "English Fiction: 'Kindergarten'," in British Book News (© The British Council, 1980), February, 1980, p. 121.

Kirkus Reviews

First-novelist Rushforth has a beautiful, if unformed, sliver of a story [in Kindergarten]; unfortunately, he has bulked it out to short-novel length by lumbering it with a contrived, over-explicit, sentimental network of thematic parallels and literary allusions…. Rushforth renders this odd little "German Christmas" household splendidly: the precocious but loving repartee between the two older brothers is perfectly captured …, and grandmother Lilli's long-postponed return to painting is genuinely touching. Sadly, however, these intermittent scenes—which admittedly are more the stuff of story than novel—occupy less than half of the book. The rest is an artificial montage of side-shows meant to refract the themes of terrorism, cruelty, and endangered childhood…. [This is] thematic overkill of appalling dimensions. A great pity; because such heavyhanded use of familiar, generalized material takes the focus too much away from [the main character] … and quite buries a special little story that should have been allowed to grow, or at least to speak for itself. (pp. 533-34)

"Fiction: 'Kindergarten'," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1980 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XLVIII, No. 8, April 15, 1980, pp. 533-34.

Judy Cooke

[Kindergarten is] an original and compelling first novel…. The book explores areas which lie, for the most part, beyond our imagination; it carries the reader back towards Hitler's Germany and the heart of 'that dark, pathless forest'. This is accomplished with fine moral judgment and narrative skill. Rushforth recreates that inconceivable past and relates it to our constant experience of loss and grief.

The central character is 16-year-old Corrie, the eldest of three brothers whose mother has been murdered; she was the victim of random violence, gunned down in a terrorist attack on Rome airport. The tragedy happened in April, now it is December, the boys' father is abroad and they are at home with their grandmother. They may not survive emotionally; we sense this in the over-bright schoolboy jokes, the intensity of family affection….

In these circumstances they prepare for Christmas, a time of 'magical revelation', since this is their German heritage. The fir-tree breathes light; the decorated house is spell-bound, described in vivid detail that borders on the hallucinatory….

Interwoven with these narratives are the anguished letters which Corrie finds in the school records from 1933 to 1939…. Jewish parents plead that their children be given sanctuary; the children themselves timidly state their case. 'We will be diligent … we will be good boys.' The author has taken a risk by the incorporation of such material and it comes off. We are made to share the plight of those parents who had to plan and struggle and act, knowing that their cause was desperate, refusing to consider that it might be hopeless….

At this point Rushforth returns to the plight of the motherless boys and is tempted to ameliorate their suffering. He presents their grandmother, the artist, as a redeemer, a role that the character cannot sustain…. The writing loses some of its pace here but, on the last page, [we are given the story of 'The Wilful Child' and] energy returns.

Judy Cooke, "Into the Oven," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 99, No. 2570, June 20, 1980, p. 939.

Barry Yourgrau

The author of ["Kindergarten," a] most unusual, reverberant yet at times precious novel is a young English schoolteacher. He has assembled an intricate, hybrid short fiction, a sort of extraordinary toy boat that voyages onto the dark waters of the suffering of innocents (in fairy tales, Nazi Germany, modern-day terrorism), bearing the flags of childhood and family, of self-knowledge and hope….

Through 190 pages … Mr. Rushforth has threaded not only numerous epistles (imaginary, I presume), but also—to make a partial, various list—several entire Grimm's fairy tales …; selections from German and English children's books, from "The Diary of Anne Frank," from "The Children's Haggadah"; songs and poems in German; detailed references to Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" and Breughel's painting, "Children's Games"; as well as enumerations of certain household items….

All this incorporated material transforms "Kindergarten" into a sort of holographic collage, where things resonate into various dimensions—the Jungian, the historical, the lyrically domestic and the individual—and where these dimensions blend into one another….

What the inclusion of such material also accomplishes is a virtually Victorian/Edwardian evocation (at times almost compulsive) of what childhood and family might be—something exquisitely secure and tender and loving—as if Mr. Rushforth were constructing a talisman...

(The entire section is 502 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

Obviously, there is a war going on [in Kindergarten]—a war between death and innocence, between fairy tales and the realities of the 20th century. It is a war that is reflected in the novel's every image and literary reference, from "The Diary of Anne Frank" to the postcards depicting Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, on the message side of which are written pleas on behalf of Jewish children whose parents are trying to free them from the menace of Hitler.

How is this battle fought and resolved in "Kindergarten"? In the foreground of Mr. Rushforth's novel … four members of the Meeuwissen family—the three boys Corrie, Jo, and Matthias; and their old grandmother Lilli—are about to celebrate a traditional German Christmas, despite their being Jewish by inheritance if not in practice.

It will not be easy to rejoice, because the children's mother is dead, killed nine months earlier in a terrorist attack on an Italian airport, and their father is abroad, raising money for the relatives of other victims of the attack. (pp. 416-17)

Still, the Meeuwissens proceed to celebrate, and during the four days that follow we come to know these remarkably sensitive and precocious children as they try to make sense of the terrifying world that surrounds them. Finally, on Dec. 28, which happens to be the birthday of the oldest boy, Corrie, the grandmother reveals a surprise she has for them. Though she has recently...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

John Calvin Batchelor

The Meeuwissen family, in Peter Rushforth's small, thoughtful first novel [Kindergarten], seems overdone, and is one reason why one withholds full assent to an otherwise successful work of fiction….

Kindergarten, though richly woven and affecting, ultimately puzzles. On one hand, Rushforth is simplistically sentimental about the innocence of childhood and family life; on the other, he is angry and self-righteous about the perceived evil of a world that thrives by eating children. The paradox has always been, of course, that the death of children is unacceptable but inescapable. Rushforth seems to assert quietly, as in a meeting house, that despite the mechanistic infanticidists in the...

(The entire section is 176 words.)