Difficult to reflect positively on poverty, even in literature

By Janet Stevens / The Bulletin

Poverty is, by and large, not a pretty sight. The man currently living on the corner of Northeast Studio Road and Northeast Fourth Street in Bend certainly doesn’t appear to be living a particularly noble life, huddled as he is in a heap of ragged dirty blankets with his possessions in a nearby shopping cart.

I see him — or his “home” — just about daily, and I worry. He lives, literally, so close to the curb that he could be hit and killed if a car took the corner too sharply.

By now he must be cold at night. I don’t know if he has enough to eat or if he ever gets a shower and something clean to wear. Nor does he appear to be a young man. His hair is white, as is his beard.

There are services in the community available to this man, of course, but he either is unaware of them or chooses not to take advantage of them. I’m guessing he’s what officials call chronically homeless. Poor mental health plays a large role in many of those lives.

Contrast this nameless man with any of the children in Margaret Sidney’s “The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew,” a children’s novel first published in 1881.

This first of a series of tales about a poor-but-happy family is Victorian to its core. The children (oldest to youngest), Ben, Polly, Joel, Davie and Phronsie (Sophronia), range in age from 11 to about 4. They’ve never been to school, though the older two can read, and Ben and Polly both help keep the family together.

Ben does so by working, cheerfully, outdoors chopping wood and doing other manual labor. Polly both acts as housekeeper for her seamstress mother, Mamsie, and by helping with the piecework a local shop owner gives Mamsie to work on.

Mamsie herself is a widow, a woman who longs for enough money to send her children to school. She is perpetually gentle and good humored and somehow she has persuaded her family that abject poverty is fun. When the book opens, the family has never celebrated either Christmas or Thanksgiving; the woodstove is so old it has a hole in it that must be stuffed if the oven is to heat, and the family’s diet centers on potatoes.

Moreover, while the Pepper children know they’re poor, they don’t seem to mind much. Perhaps that’s because someone is always there to take away the roughest edges of it.

Thus a kindly doctor replaces the wretched old stove when Polly is ill with measles, a disease that left her eyes bandaged for weeks. A neighbor lady donates raisins just in time to dress up a whole-wheat, eggless birthday cake Polly whips up for Mamsie. And the King family, Jasper his father and the family dog, finally lifts the entire Pepper clan out of their little brown house into a much larger one, where the children achieve not just middle class, but something better than that.

I loved the Five Little Peppers as a kid, as I was meant to do. If this was poverty, I was all for it. It didn’t occur to me that the children were almost impossibly happy in the face of adversity, that Mamsie was, no doubt a saint, and that in the real world, a family like the Kings was, even then, highly unlike to step in as saviors.

For too many Americans who are poor today, neither the life of the homeless man in Bend nor those of the Peppers, bears any resemblance to reality.

Many of today’s poor, statistics tell us, may not be genuinely hungry, but too many are “food insecure” — they cannot assure they will have enough to eat from one month to the next. Too many are children, and too many are homeless. There are services available and for most, and school, complete with hot, balanced meals, is part of the daily routine.

I don’t see much modern literature glorifying poverty as Five Little Pepper books do, and that’s no doubt good. Most of America’s poor may not be in the dire shape of the man on Northeast Fourth Street, but their lives are far from those of the poor but noble Peppers, holey stove and all.