“While he was with us, we were given a chance to serve and comfort Christ in him.” In the final chapter of Caryll Houselander’s 1947 novel The Dry Wood, the priest of Riverside, a poor docklands parish in London, consoles his listeners for the loss of their terminally ill child, Willie Jewel.
Houselander (1901-1954) was an English writer, artist and mystic who wrote short stories and numerous spiritual works on Mary and the Passion. The Dry Wood is her only novel. Although no longer in print, it is one of the most important Catholic novels of the 20th century, offering both a rare depiction of post-war London Catholicism and a genuine contribution to the broader literary movements emerging at the time.
Willie’s young parents, Art and Martha, had cared for him in their one-room dwelling for the few years of his short life, but he was the delight of the whole parish. Houselander’s depiction of the boy’s influence on those around him is an impassioned assertion of how much the weak and disabled can offer society.
When Willie was born, his father had watched the struggle for survival in that tiny creature “whom the doctor thought better dead”. He had seen his own eyes looking back at him from the face of his dumb child, “not with reproach for his life, but with love”. In those eyes he saw “the terrifying joy of innocence crucified”.
Art begins to find he has a reason to work all day, loading and unloading the ships, bringing what little he earns back to his wife and child. For Willie’s mother there is no slow dawn of love; she had fought for the baby before he was even born. In the hospital she was told that it was her life or the child’s; she demanded the boy survive. “That’s religion for you,” the doctor whispered to the nurse before he looked up to see Martha’s eyes burning like black stars into his soul. In silence he fought for them both to live.
Art and Martha have little to give their baby when they take him home. A floral sheet for his crib, an old box sanded and painted blue. A crystal chime that dances when the breeze comes up from the river, delighting the boy with light beams and bells. But the people of Riverside bring Willie Jewel their gifts each day as they pass from the dock: a posy of wild flowers, a playing card, an orange.
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