Carnegie Medal 2016 – Valentine,Lake, Sedgewick

2016 Carnegie shortlist roundup part 2. In which I continue underwhelmed.

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Continuing on from yesterday’s round-up of the 2016 Carnegie shortlist. This post covers the other three titles from the shortlist which didn’t get an award.

Fire Colour One - jacket imageJenny Valentine – Fire Colour One

Iris is a pyromaniac, deeply disconnected from her fame- and money-obsessed mother and stepfather, and has just met her long-estranged father, Ernest, who is dying of cancer. The book opens with Iris lighting a fire at Ernest’s funeral, and then spools back to tell the story of how she got to that point. While Iris’s mother jockeys to gain control of Ernest’s fortune, Iris gets to know her father and discovers they share a love of art, finds out about her own history, and tells the story of her friendship with the mysterious Thurston. These three plotlines come together at the end of the book to give Iris (or, really, Ernest) a final triumph over her mother.

This is really a fairytale of sorts: a wish fulfilment fantasy in which the long lost father turns out to be both rich and adoring, and the horrible parents get their come-uppance. And of course, the girl gets to marry the prince, or in this case gets to be reunited with the cool perfomance artist boy who is the first person ever to tell her that she is valued. Thurston is additionally mysterious because he eschews mobile phones and other usual ways of communicating: part of the drama of this subplot arises from the fact Iris had a fight with him immediately before leaving America, and has no way to contact him to let him know where she’s gone or that she’s sorry.  I found the Thurston parts of the narrative a bit tiresome: he’s an enigmatic character who shows up unpredictably, and his performance art is on the line between cool and a bit creepy or annoying (like all performance art?). Iris’s argument with him arises from one of these acts of performance art: he creates a roadside shrine for her, along the lines of those put up for victims of road traffic accidents, and sets things up so that she unwittingly arrives at the shrine amidst a crowd of people who are leaving flowers – a dead girl at her own memorial. I think we’re supposed to take Thurston’ argument that this is all about demonstrating that Iris is not invisible at face value, but actually her shocked and angry reaction seems much more valid to me, and it grated with me that she spends most of the book regretting the fact that she didn’t apologise to Thurston for rejecting this gesture. I think this is a genuine young adult novel, in the sense that I think this scenario might be more intriguing and appealing if you are a teenager – though I like to think teenage readers also have a healthy scepticism.

It’s interesting to compare this book with The Lie Tree, because whereas Faith starts by idoloising her father and gradually realises there is much to admire in her mother, Iris moves from believing her father abandoned her to essentially idolising him. I was uncomfortable with the way this relationship is set up against Iris’s relationship with her mother. Ernest turns out to be the perfect parent: the rich, loving father who ‘gets’ Iris and her love of art (land thus becoming the second man to tell Iris that she is after all special). By contrast, her mother, Hannah, is vapid and self-centred, doesn’t believe Iris when she is almost raped by the son of a family acquaintance, and cares only for money. Ernest’s stories about his relationship with Hannah don’t do much to add nuance: there’s a hint of something interesting when we learn that he met her when she was homeless and penniless, and that she has erased all references to her life before Ernest, but we’re never allowed to find out any more. Even the story of Iris’s conception paints Hannah in a bad light: it’s Ernest who ‘forces’ her to stop drinking during her pregnancy, and according to him she shows no interest in Iris up until the day she essentially abducts her. This left me wondering why on earth Hannah would take Iris at all: there must be more to her story, but the book isn’t interested in telling us about it. The Lie Tree was a little clunky in showing that the role of socialite might be a way of negotiating gender constraints, but I definitely prefer that to the slightly misogynistic (and classist) implication that Hannah is simply a gold digger.

Once again, I am being quite critical here of a book that I mostly enjoyed. It’s a fairly good read and I think teenage readers would definitely enjoy it, but this is another one that just wasn’t outstanding to me.

 

Nick Lake – There Will Be LiesThere Will Be Lies - jacket image

Lies were a theme this year. There Will Be Lies features two lies, and a truth; or so a coyote tells Shelby as she lies by the side of the road after a car accident. The accident precipitates the disintegration of her whole life, as her mother takes Shelby on the run and Shelby uncovers a series of explanations. They’re in hiding from Shelby’s violent father; no – they’re in hiding because Shelby’s mother murdered her abusive husband; no – Shelby’s mother isn’t her mother at all, but her abductor. Interwoven with this narrative is the story of Shelby’s adventures in the Dreaming, where she is the Maiden, charged by Coyote with the task of killing the Crone and saving the Child in order to save the world. Of course, resolving this part of the story is also linked to resolving Shelby’s real life issues as she comes to realise that her mother is not really her mother, and meets her new family.

I’m sorry to say that the Carnegie has form when it comes to culturally appropriative Native American narratives (Susan Cooper, I’m looking at you) and this book is no exception. I don’t know a huge amount about Native American myth and culture (as always, Debbie Reese has useful thoughts on this aspect of the book), but you don’t really need to know a lot to feel that this is a rather lazy mish mash. It’s unclear, for a start, why Coyote is concerning himself with the fate of one random white girl (at the end of the book he reveals that it’s not the whole world at stake, only Shelby’s world). Lake handwaves this by implying at one point that the Dreaming is simply a part of Shelby’s ill-informed subconscious, but this is rather unsatisfying. I’ll confess, though, that I’m personally able to swallow a lot of cherrypicking from various myths (even while being aware this can be very problematic) if it’s in service of a good story. The problem is that the Dreaming narrative simply isn’t that strong: the revelations about Shelby’s real life are much more interesting, but they are delivered in a rather flat, infodump manner. Clearly the Dreaming is supposed to provide the emotional reaction to these revelations, but it’s so paint-by-numbers that it doesn’t really work.

It’s a shame that Lake went down this route, because there are glimmers of an interesting book in here. When Shelby finally meets the parents she was stolen from, there’s a little bit of exploration of how it might be to adjust to such a reunion after 15 years, but it’s too quickly curtailed. I also liked the way that Shelby doesn’t simply abandon her ‘fake’ mother: unlike Jenny Valentine’s Iris, who seems to have no emotional attachment to her mother despite having been raised by her, Shelby struggles to reconcile her memories of being loved and cared for by this women with the new knowledge that she had also been stolen by her (although she’s totally able to maintain her fatphobia towards her mother throughout the book, ugh). Had Lake abandoned the mythic element and instead pursued the emotional ramifications of his realist narrative, this might have been a good book. Alas.

 

Ghosts of Heaven - jacket imageMarcus Sedgwick – Ghosts of Heaven

This is a series of four interconnected novellas which can – according to Sedgwick – be read in any order. The first is a verse narrative about a girl in prehistoric times who yearns to take on a shamanic role and witnesses the massacre of her entire tribe by another group; the second is the story of Anna, daughter of a cunning woman,  who is hanged as a witch; centuries later a doctor in a mental asylum encounters a poet with a strange mania; and finally a space pioneer wakes from his long sleep to realise that all is not as it should be on board his ship. The stories are linked by the repeating image of a spiral, encountered in the dark of prehistoric caves, painted on the millwheel and on a toy given to Anna’s brother, built in the heart of the asylum in the form of a giant staircase, and mapped by the journey of the ship through space. Each character struggles with the vastness of the universe and the desire to know more of its mysteries. Notwithstanding Sedgwick’s author’s note, I read the four stories in order (largely because I was reading this one in a hurry), and each one does build on the other. Perhaps they do work in any of the 24 possible orders, as he suggests, but I think this would work against any sense of cohesion to the novel.

I am not really sure what I thought of this book. It was, I think, the best written of all the books on the shortlist this year, but I was left feeling it was less than the sum of its parts. It’s indebted to a number of other works, not all of which I got: my fellow shadowers pointed out an overt reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey (I’ve never seen or read this)  and both structurally and thematically I was reminded of Alan Garner (the coded message at the end surely owes something to Red Shift). And the prehistoric section of the book reminded me inexorably of Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series, although I strongly suspect this was not what Sedgewick was going for. I liked the idea of the spirals linking all these four narratives, but in the end I was left feeling they didn’t really hold much meaning. Being lazy, I did not decode the message at the end myself, but of course the internet delivers in such matters. The message suggests that (spoiler text) ‘The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable[…]’. I assume that this message is also supposed to be the underlying message of the book, but actually I found the stories significantly less hopeful than this implies. Each of the stories ends in death, and I largely felt that these deaths were pretty meaningless. I’d prefer the life well-lived to the noble sacrifice.

There was some debate in my shadowing group about whether this was really a children’s book. Lots of people felt quite passionately that there was nothing in it that particularly oriented it towards children or young adults – some of the characters are teenagers, but they are clearly adults within the contexts in which they live. I’d agree that this could equally have been published on a general science fiction list, but I do think this is a young adult book in terms of appeal. The sense that there is some mystery out there to be solved, that the universe is full of unknown wonders and horrors, and that there are patterns linking everything – all this is catnip to a certain kind of teenage reader. It can appeal to adults too, of course, but speaking as someone who was exactly that kind of reader I think it does hold a special appeal for young people, who are more excited by the sense of possibility in the universe and perhaps less engaged with the question of how to find meaning in the quotidian. These sorts of generational generalisations are exactly the sort of thing that I chastise my students for, of course – but I’m struck by the fact that this is exactly the shift that happens across Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. Speaking as someone who was bitterly disappointed by Tehanu as a teenage reader, and who now adores it, I can at least say this shift in mentality was true for this reader.

I think on the whole Sedgwick’s book is a flawed one, but I’m glad to see it on the Carnegie list. There’s an ambition here and a respect for the reader which I value.

 

 

 

Carnegie Medal 2016 – Hardinge, Saunders, Ness

A belated round-up of this year’s Carnegie shortlist: Part 1 – Hardinge, Saunders, Ness.

The winner of the 2016 Carnegie Medal was announced today: the award went to Sarah Crossan for One, a verse novel about conjoined twins. In addition, the inaugural Amnesty CILIP Honour was awarded to Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves, and the Kate Greenaway Award went to Chris Riddell for his illustrations to Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle. Congratulations to all the winners.

I have been shadowing this year’s Carnegie award and had meant to blog each title as we went along, but these good intentions fell by the wayside. So instead I’m doing a brief round-up blog on all this year’s titles. This post and the next will deal with all the ‘runners up’, and then I’ll discuss One and Lies We Tell Ourselves, along with a few musings on the award as a whole. There will be spoilers here, though I’ll try to keep them to a minimum.

 

Frances Hardinge – The Lie TreeThe Lie Tree jacket image

A fantasy novel with a ‘alt Victorian’ setting, which deals with the crisis of faith occasioned by Darwinism and the constraints of Victorian gender norms. Faith and her family have moved to an isolated island community, ostensibly because her father, a noted expert on fossils, has been invited to work on an archaelogical dig on the island, but in reality (it becomes clear) because her father has suffered a blow to his reputation which will result in the family being socially ostracised. Isolation is not enough, however, and before long Faith’s father has been found dead and the island is alive with rumours about his exposure as a scientific fraud. Faith discovers her father’s secret: a mysterious plant known as the Mendacity Tree which appears to deliver revelations when ‘fed’ a diet of lies. Her father’s fake fossils seem to have been created in service of the Tree, and Faith quickly discovers for herself how lies and rumours can take on a life of their own.

I read this before the Carnegie shortlist was announced. I approached it with high expectations, partly because the novel won the Costa Prize this year but largely because I really like Hardinge’s writing. Her novel Cuckoo Song was on last year’s Carnegie shortlist and I felt passionately that it should have been the winner. Perhaps the novel suffered a bit from my high expectations, but I didn’t think it lived up to Cuckoo Song. I certainly enjoyed it, but both in terms of writing style and in terms of plot I found it a little clunky at points. One of the major themes running through the novel is the issue of gender: Faith begins the novel idolising her father and despising her mother, but as the narrative progresses it becomes clear to both the reader and Faith herself that her father is deeply flawed (and pretty unlikeable) while her mother’s apparent vapidity is a weapon she wields in the context of a highly gendered world. This gets hammered home a bit too hard, however: at one point Faith’s father literally tells her that ‘a girl cannot be brave, or clever, or skilled as a boy can’. I suppose that the target reader of this novel might need a little bit more help recognising the way Victorian gender norms operate than I do, but I found that the degree to which the novel tells rather than shows interfered with the development of Faith’s character. She never felt completely real to me, because she was always being used as a kind of ideological example. This is a rather harsh way of doing it – and in reality I enjoyed the book quite a lot more than this sounds – but it was disappointing because one of the things I really loved about Cuckoo Song was the way it very gradually and subtly asked both the protagonist and the reader to reconsider their understanding of the world.

The Lie Tree is a very good novel, and I enjoyed the ending, which was something of a romp (surprise lesbians as a deus ex machina!), but whereas last year I felt Hardinge was robbed, I didn’t feel passionately about her this year. In fact, I’m a little disappointed that it was this book that received the Costa, as I think this is neither Hardinge’s best work nor the best children’s literature has to offer.

Five Children on the Western Front jacket imageKate Saunders – Five Children on the Western Front

As the title suggests, this is essentially E Nesbit fanfiction. It picks up from the episode in The Story of the Amulet in which the children visit their own near future but – as the author says in her afternote to the book – she knew what Nesbit could not about what their future might contain. The book reintroduces us to the original four children, now almost grown up, plus one more – Edie – of Kate Saunders’ invention, and explores their lives in the context of World War One. The Psammead reappears once more, and it becomes apparent that he needs to reckon with the crimes of his own past while the children grapple with the problems of their present.

I bought Five Children on the Western Front shortly after it came out, and read the prologue, in which the children visit their friend the Professor in the future. The chapter closes with the children wondering why they could see no photos of the grown-up boys in the Professor’s study, while ‘Far away in 1930, in his empty room, the old professor was crying’. I found this incredibly powerful, and so sad that I closed the book and didn’t pick it up again until I came to it on the Carnegie shortlist. I love Nesbit’s books, and this prologue works perfectly as a piece of futurefic which reminds you of the tragedy which was to come to the generation portrayed in her books. It’s much harder to sustain this over the course of an entire novel, and while I liked this book I don’t think it entirely succeeds.

The best aspects of the book were in the characterisation. I absolutely believed in the five children and the way they interacted. I especially liked the way Saunders shows the Psammead colliding with their real lives and coming off the worse: whereas Nesbit’s stories are always set in the summer holidays, this book shows the children dealing with school, jobs, and army life. The Psammead is neither as important nor as interesting to them in this context, and their different reactions to him are nicely drawn and often quite humorous.

The historical commentary was less finely drawn. Throughout the novel, the Psammead is forced to deal with various revelations about his past life, when – it turns out – he was a rather despotic god-ruler. He’s forced to acknowledge that he treated his subjects / slaves poorly, that his blithe use of slaves as cannon fodder and his scorn for the ‘slave’ class was wrong. All this has clear parallels for the WW1 setting and serves as a commentary on the things the children are encountering (Robert and Cyril both end up as solders, while Anthea falls in love with a working-class boy they encounter while taking the Psammead to the British Museum). The book suffers from a similar problem to The Lie Tree: in making it clear to her readers where their ideological loyalties should lie, Saunders limits the nuance of her story. In particular, the children are all a little too twenty-first century in their views, and are ready not only to condemn the Psammead for his past behaviour but also to condemn the mores of their own times. It would have been more interesting if the Psammead had been allowed to give as good as he got in terms of criticising their society. In particular, the recurring slave narrative seemed like a missed opportunity: the children could have been forced to examine their own reliance on a society which (while no longer dependent on actual slave labour) actively exploited the poor and was still heavily dependent on the then-thriving Empire. A more subtle handling of this theme could have also given it more resonance for contemporary readers: the underlying implication of the book was that they did bad things in the past, but we are more enlightened now. This is an easy trap to fall into when writing about WW1, I think, but the book was good enough that it really felt like a missed opportunity not to make this a more uncomfortable narrative.

One thing that does make me forgive this book for being slightly less nuanced or daring than it could have been is the fact that it is genuinely for younger readers. It’s the only book on this shortlist which is really aimed at an under twelve readership, so while there was scope to do more with the narrative, it delivers something appropriate for its target audience. I also happen to generally like its ideological slant – but I think there could have been a bit more to it even within the bounds of its younger target audience.

Patrick Ness – The Rest of Us Just Live HereThe Rest of Us Just Live Here jacket image

A story about not being the Chosen One. Each chapter of The Rest of Us Just Live Here begins with a ‘chapter summary’ documenting the adventures of the ‘indie kids’ as they battle against supernatural forces. The chapters themselves follow Mikey and his friends, ‘ordinary’ teenagers who are simply dealing with their day-to-day lives rather than tryng to save the world. The book was described to me as ‘Buffy fanfiction about the people in the background’, which is a fair description of its conceit, although it also spoofs a number of other YA genre tropes (there are mentions of a plague of sparkly people, and of people dying beautifully of cancer).

I love Buffy and love fanfiction, and I also think Patrick Ness has produced some of the finest works published for young adults in recent years, so I was excited about this book. As with The Lie Tree, this perhaps meant I had overly high expectations going in, but while I liked this book I didn’t think it lived up to Ness’s earlier works (although to be fair I think the Chaos Walking trilogy is the kind of career defining work that is very difficult to ever match). I enjoyed all the little hat tips to various genre tropes, and it’s clear that Ness is writing from a place of deep affection for the genre even while he’s poking gentle fun at it. The fantasy elements and the realism gradually converge, but I found the degree to which Mikey remains disconnected from the adventures of the indie kids a bit unsatisfying. I’ve actually read quite a bit of Buffy fanfiction with a similar premise, and I think one of the things I enjoy most about that genre is the way it can show how the weird characteristics of Sunnydale shape the ways people live there even when they are not involved or even consciously aware of the supernatural. By contrast, Ness’s teenagers comment on the activities of the indie kids in a rather detached way, and even when they actually start to encounter the indie kids in serious trouble they don’t seem particularly moved by them or inclined to help them. The brilliant Aishwarya writes eloquently about the problems with this in her blog. The funny thing is that that this sense of disconnection is at odds with the message of the book itself, which is really all about community. Ness rejects the idea of the lone Chosen One in favour of a narrative which recognises that everyone is flawed and everyone has their own challenges, but suggests that the way to counter this is by paying attention to one another. So it’s a shame that this isn’t quite reflected in the merging of the two narratives.

I originally read this book in advance of an event with Ness at Seven Stories, at which Ness read  a section. I found the book much, much funnier when he was reading it, and it makes me feel it would be worth a reread to see if the humour might ‘sparkle’ a bit more if I were in the right mood. Even without the laugh-out-loud quality it had when he was reading it, I enjoyed the book, and I think teenage readers would definitely enjoy it. But for me, this wasn’t ‘outstanding’ and I’m glad it didn’t end up being Ness’s third Carnegie win.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Couldn’t Leave Dinah

Another wartime story, this one with ponies: We Couldn’t Leave Dinah. Needs more gymkhanas.

Caveat: I read this fairly recently, but couldn’t find my copy this week to refresh myself, so this might suffer slightly from the vagaries of my memory. Also (ironically), this post is even more spoilery than usual, so don’t read if this will bother you.

1941 saw the Carnegie Medal continue its focus on war with Mary Treadgold’s We Couldn’t Leave Dinah, a pony story cum wartime adventure set on the Channel Islands. Caroline, Mick and Thomas Templeton – English residents of fictional island Clerinel, and all members of their local Pony Club – are faced with evacuation to the UK as fears of a German occupation of the island grow. The Germans invade the same night as the evacuation, and in the chaos Caroline and Mick manage to get themselves left behind, and end up concealing themselves and their ponies in a cave originally meant as the new headquarters for the Pony Club. With the help of their French friend Peter, they manage to organise a way off the island for themselves, though not before Mick is forced to teach the daughter of the German general occupying their home how to ride (he masquerades as their French servant). In the process, he uncovers some information which can be used against the Germans. They depart the island in possession of this information, but leaving behind their pony Dinah, who they conclude will be safe with the Gernam child Nannerl until they can return for her.

Mary Treadgold was inspired to write the story after reading many terrible pony books  while working as editor of Heinemann, and this is generally referred to as a pony book. I was quite excited about this, because I had my prescribed horsey phase as a small girl and can still get excited about winning the gymkhana with the pony tricked out in lovingly restored tack found in the old stables. As the summary above demonstrates, however, there’s quite a lot more going on in this book and I found it rather lacking in pony detail. Even though the children are obsessed with the Pony Club, it felt more like a plot device than a central focus. I liked the book less as a result, although this says more about me than about the virtues of the plot. The drama of the plot focuses around the danger that the children will get caught and their accidental involvement in an English spy ring operating on the island, and while I’m willing to accept this in theory, in practice I’m more excited about who wins the gymkhana.

The most interesting part of the novel (to me, anyway) is the way that it explores changing identities and allegiances in the context of war. The book begins with a fancy dress party organised for the Pony Club by the new President of the Pony Club, Peter, who is one of the French residents of the island. The party provides an excuse for a group of Germans to land in disguse and take over key strategic points on the island, thus facilitating the invasion. This sets up a running tension through the book: Caroline sees the Germans and later puts two and two together, and so the children are faced with the prospect that Peter’s father – and possibly Peter himself – are in fact German collaborators. At the end of the book, it’s revealed that Peter’s father did collaborate with the Germans, but only because they have family in Germany who are being held hostage against his cooperation. The genuine sympathy with which Treadgold portrays this character is important given that she was writing shortly after the establishment of the Vichy government in France: it’s made clear that this has been an agonising decision. The introduction of the German child, Nannerl, is also key: although they imagine she will be a horrible Nazi, she turns out to be a small, rather comical figure who shares their love of horses and desperately wants to learn to ride.  They find her desperately annoying and inconvenient, but in the same way as they are annoyed by their younger brother, and during the course of the book they win her over. At the end of the novel, they are not only sure that Nannerl will take good care of Dinah, they make her an honorary member of the Pony Club and look forward to the possibility that they might meet again as fellow members of the Club in happier times. There’s something rather wonderful about the fact that the wartime committee chose a book with such a clear message about the potential for unity across nationalities, and with such a sympathy for those caught between what was moral and what was safe.

Despite these good qualities, Treadgold’s portrayal of the actual non-English characters is rather clunky, and there is just a shadow of a sense that whatever the good qualities of other nations there’s something special about being English. There’s also a bit of a gendered quality to the characterisation: once the two children are living in the cave Caroline is largely quite anxious, while Mick gets drawn into the discovery of a possible spy ring and becomes much more brave and adventurous. There are some nice bits of characterisation in this section (when my copy eventually reappears I’ll come back and add a quote), but this story does feel more gendered than any of the previous winners.

Plotwise – lack of gymkhanas aside – this does clip along well and there’s a reasonable level of realism. Based on the title, I had always imagined this was a story in which the children actually refused to be evacuated, but in fact although they’re sad about leaving their pony, it’s pure accident that they don’t make it onto the boat and they’re pretty panicked about it. And despite my quibbles about the gendered nature of it, I like the fact that hiding out in a cave is not portrayed as all a jolly good adventure – it’s all a bit nervewracking and uncomfortable.

This is the second winner I’ve come to which is out-of-print, but it survived much longer than Visitors From London: the last edition in WorldCat is 1982, two decades later than the last edition of Kitty Barne’s book. I find this surprising in terms of quality: this isn’t a bad book, but it’s nowhere near as vivid or interesting as  Visitors from London. I suspect that the pony story aspect helped a lot here, since it lends itself to marketing – I’ve noticed that other stories with a pony element tend to have that played up on the jacket, however slight the focus on ponies within.

1941 was slim pickings for children’s publishing, which probably helped Treadgold: Ransome’s Missee Lee came out this year, but was ineligible since at this time authors couldn’t win more than once (not sorry about this, Missee Lee is the most problematic of Ransome’s books by a long chalk), and P.L. Travers also published an evacuation story, I Go By Sea, I Go By Land. I haven’t read the latter, so I’m not sure how We Couldn’t Leave Dinah holds up in comparison (cue yet another book purchase, whoops). I’m not convinced it is really an outstanding book, but on the whole I’d rather have this one celebrated than no award at all. Marcus Crouch, though, suggests that the award was premature in terms of Treadgold’s writing career – I enjoyed this one enough for that to pique my interest in her other works.

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 6/10

Plot: 6/10

Characterisation: 5/10

Themes: War, evacuation,  ponies, nationhood, adventure, spies

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Illustrator: Stuart Tresilian (but my paperback edition had none of the illustrations, so I can’t comment on these)

Author’s nationality/race: (A new category, I realised the other day I’d like to keep track of this, and also not note race only when the author was non-white. Not that this is likely to be an issue for a while.) White English

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visitors from London

A forgotten treasure: Kitty Barne’s Visitors from London

The first Carnegie Medal winner published during the war years (The Radium Woman having slightly predated the start of the war) tackled the war itself: Kitty Barne’s Visitors From London  is an evacuation story. It’s actually a sequel to Barne’s earlier novel Family Footlights, which is about the same family, but since I haven’t read Family Footlights I can say with some confidence that it stands alone. This is a summer holiday story with some genetic similarity to Arthur Ransome’s books, but with a wartime twist. The book takes place in the first months of the war, when Operation Pied Piper was put into action. The four Farrar children are spending the summer in the country with their Aunt Myra, but what promises to be a peaceful holiday is interrupted by the news that evacuees are to be billeted at the nearby farmhouse, Steadings. The Farrars and Aunt Myra are roped into preparing for the evacuees and taking care of them: hijinks ensue. By the end of the summer, the evacuees have mostly retreated back to London (as many did during the ‘phony war’) and the children return to their boarding school.

This is the first of the winning novels which isn’t still in print; according to Keith Barker it was the first of the Carnegie books to go out of print. Both Barker and Pat Thomson (writing in Carousel) seem to find this unsurprising and regard the book as rather dated. This baffles me, because I found it utterly fresh and engaging. One of the criticisms often levelled at children’s books of this period is that their child characters are preternaturally goodtempered, well behaved, and respectful to their elders. It’s a criticism I previously took at face value, but reading this book really underlines how lazy a characterisation of the period it is. All Barne’s characters are very distinct, realistic, and not above a bit of family discord: I particularly enjoyed the youngest girl, Sally, who has frequent burst of outrage when things don’t go her way. I also loved the evacuee Lily, an enormously competent twelve-year-old who has cared for her two younger siblings since the death of her mother. Barne does a great job of depicting the complex jockeying for position between the evacuees and the Steadings people, between members of the different families, and between children and adults. Typically, it’s the children who win out in these scenarios, often by subtly manipulating the adults – as when 10-year-old Jimmy succeeds in deflecting the wrath of a local warden bent on accusng them of breaking the blackout by informing him in a concerned manner that he’s left his car running – an offence during wartime.

Barker suggests that the book is rather patronising towards the evacuees, but although they are certainly a source of humour I found Barne’s treatment of all the working-class characters both respectful and (as far as I can judge from this historical distance) realistic. Lily is comical in her role as miniature mother, but Barne also makes it clear that she is in fact a very competent parent who loves her siblings and does a good job of looking after them. She has a moment of triumph right at the beginning of the book when it’s discovered that despite all the talk of ‘iron rations’ she is the only person who has had the sense to bring a  tin opener, and there’s also a nice indication that she is smart and has potential to do more than work in a factory (the fate she expects once she turns 15). Along with Lily – an honorary ‘mother’ there’s Mrs Fell, ‘pretty free with her slaps’ and deeply suspicious of the country; Mrs Jacobson, ‘dark, plump, good-humoured, inclined to make the best of things’; and Mrs Thompson, controlled by her husband, terrified of the bombs and just about everything else; all accompanied by their children. In other words, we don’t have a generic portrait of the working classes here, but a much more nuanced portrayal of diverse people from very subtly different backgrounds who respond in different but understandable ways to the strange situation in which they find themselves.

Some of the themes which were present in the other books I’ve written about so far resurface here. There is a strong sense of the value of the countryside as a source of enduring stability and tradition. At the start of the book, Gerda (the eldest Farrar girl) imagines the farmers’ wives who have inhabited the old house ‘whisking in and out of the doors, hanging up their bacon on those hooks, making their cheeses in that small dairy’, and the book is full of such details of country life. The knowledge of the shepherds  – Old Tolhurst and Young Tolhurst (like Ransome’s Billies, both are old men) – is given special respect both by the characters of the book and by the narrative voice. One of the evacuees, Fred Fell, is immediately drawn to the shepherds and proves to be a natural at keeping sheep; in an interesting linking of place and race, Young Tolhurst suggests that the name ‘Fell’ suggests it is in his blood. Yet the book is not solely backwards looking. Barne pokes a little fun at middle-class attempts to revive ‘traditional’ ways through the character of Mrs Meredith-Smith, who vainly attempts to persuade children to play the ancient Sussex game of stoolball, and is generally portrayed as well-meaning but rather sentimental. More fundamentally, the success of the whole community is derived not from a return to ‘traditional’ ways of being but from a willingness to accept change and work together. I share Kim Reynolds’ view (in her forthcoming book Left Behind) that Barne presents the Steadings community as a sort of democratic experiment: everyone has to work together and accept one another’s peculiarities in order to achieve a greater good.

Ruth Gervis, who illustrated the first edition, also deserves credit for her charming and lively pencil drawings. Her contribution to this means that the Carnegie Medal in its early years had something of a family quality: as I mentioned in my Ballet Shoes post, Gervis was Noel Streatfeild’s sister, and Kitty Barne was their cousin-in-law. (The literary connection, however, was that they were published by Dent.) She’s a brilliant illustrator, and surprisingly for a wartime book was given quite a bt of latitude: there are 40 illustrations scattered throughout the text.

Why did this book not ‘stick’ when it’s so lively? The last reprint by Dent seems to have been 1960, and then there was one by Cedric Chivers (who seem to be largely a book binding firm – anyone know more about them?) in 1972. This is about the time that books by people who were children in the war started to appear – Carrie’s War came out in 1973. So perhaps this didn’t quite chime with the vision of the war which was being created in retrospect. Or perhaps the impulse to create a new literature in the 1960s contributed to this being mischaracterised as rather more staid and nostalgic than it really is. Whatever the reason, this seems to me to be a prime candidate for a reprint.

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 9/10

Plot: 9/10 – a little episodic

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Home, heritage, history, modernity, war, evacuation, change

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Ruth Gervis