Susanne Gervay, illustrated by Anna Pignataro,
Ships in the Field
Ford Street Publishing, 2012.
“Every night Brownie and I wait for Papa to come home.” – and when he arrives, “Round and round we whirl.” This joyous ritual provides the opening sequence of Ships in the Field, a story whose essence is perhaps distilled into the notion of the transcendental power of love. Acclaimed Australian author Susanne Gervay (I Am Jack, That’s Why I Wrote This Song) has based the story on her own childhood as the daughter of Hungarian refugees. Told through the eyes, perception and narrative voice of a likeable, effervescent little girl, we learn that her beloved, funny Papa works in a car factory but used to be a farmer “in the old country, before it was broken”; and quiet, withdrawn Ma, who seems to have forgotten how to smile, was a teacher and now “sews dresses all day long”. The girl’s confidante is her soft toy dog Brownie but she also longs for a real dog.
Every Sunday the family goes into the countryside and Papa says, “Look at the ships in the field.” This makes the little girl giggle, for it conjures up a funny image, but it makes her sad too, because other people laugh at the way her father speaks – and so she staunchly joins him in his pronunciation of the word “sheep”. One Sunday, near the “woolly ships”, she finds something very precious that signals a new chapter for all the family.
The undercurrents in the story are felt in the girl’s awareness of aspects of her family’s past. It is never mentioned in her presence but it weighs on her nevertheless, and she confides in Brownie, “I don’t like war.” Anna Pignataro’s beautiful watercolour illustrations perfectly capture the emotions – love, pain, joy – that emanate from the story. As well as the ever-faithful Brownie, vignettes of a real dog appear throughout the story; and two notable sequences merge events from the past, depicting war and flight through the second-hand filter of the little girl’s knowledge and imagination. The rough pencil outlines underlying the watercolours imbue the illustrations with energy and a sense of movement that is further emphasised in the variety of page layouts: the use of continuous narrative is particularly effective.
Ships in the Field is itself a multi-layered term, from straightforward mispronunciation to providing scope for metaphorical and poetic interpretation – or simply delight in its nonsense. While offering a warm reading experience for young children, the book also poses questions for older readers and adults about how much young children can or should know about painful elements in a family’s past; and about the damage that can be caused by not bringing the past into the open, when children have already absorbed more than adults give them credit for. Each rereading of this perfect synthesis between spoken and visual narrative offers something new, through the nuance of the writing or a dawning awareness of a visual motif. Above all, Ships in the Field is a very special picture book of extraordinary depth, that carries a message of hope and reassurance that time does and will heal.