Peter Rushforth Judy Cooke - Essay

Judy Cooke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.