‘Carrie’s War’ is the story of a young evacuee’s personal struggles
‘Carrie’s War’ by Nina Bawden is a story about a young girl’s personal struggles, adjusting to a strange new life as an evacuee in the home of Welsh family during World War 2. The book is an evocative picture of life on the home front, especially the stirring account of transplantation of so many young British school children, at a very young and impressionable age.
The Setting of Carrie’s War
Life for young Carrie Willow and her younger brother Nick, undergoes an enormous upheaval when they are put upon a train in the company of a trainload of London evacuees, a group of young children in the company of their schoolteacher, towards an unknown destination in the heart of Wales, far away from the scare of sudden wartime bombing.
They arrive in a sleepy Welsh coal-mining village and are billeted to the home of a curmudgeonly Welsh shopkeeper, who lives with his spinster younger sister – Auntie Lou to the children. Mr Evans is extremely controlling and miserly. The children must creep about the house and they are not allowed to even use the upstairs bathroom during the daytime, in fear of trampling on and spoiling the carpeted staircase. An outdoor lavatory, at the end of the garden must do the job, even in cold weather. Homelife is extremely oppressive and I think, would have been intolerable, if not for the love shown by tender hearted Auntie Lou, who is scared of her brother.
The children visit Mr Evan’s elder sister’s home- Druid’s Bottom- a mysterious, secretive place, magically located in a secluded grove by the train tracks.
Mr Evan’s elder sister, Dilys Gotobed, is a widow, confined to her bed and looked after by a woman called Hepzibah Green. Hepzibah Green is not only a caregiver and housekeeper, she also takes care of the Gotobed’s nephew – a young boy with a disability – Johnny Gotobed. Hepzibah envelopes Druid’s Bottom with such an air of warmth and comfort, that it is a joy for the children to visit there. There is always the promise of good home cooked food, a roaring fire and a friendly face telling all sorts of mystical tales at Druid’s Bottom.
Some of these mystical tales are fraught with terrible curses and tales of superstition that haunt Druid’s Bottom.
Carrie in particular feels that it is her calling to heal the rift between Mr Evan’s and his elderly sister and in trying to do so – she does something that will haunt her for the rest of her life.
When Carrie revisits the sleepy old mining town many years later with her own children, will she able to forgive herself and be able to reconstrue events that happened many many years ago?
‘Carrie’s War’ was a good book, well written with an interesting plot but for me the point of main interest was the event of the evacuee children being sent to far flung corners of the country to escape the threat of bombs. As a parent it seems rather a hard pill to swallow, to resign oneself to being separated from one’s children to strangers – and what struck me as extraordinary was the calm with which Carrie’s mother let go of her children. However, we are well aware given the events of the past year, of how extreme events can lead to extraordinary decisions and modes of living life. From my perspective, it seems an unacceptable form of separation in the here and now, but perhaps being a Londoner with the threat of the Blitz hovering over my head, I would have convinced myself to put my little children on a train to the far reaches of the country. One can only hope that a person like Mr Evans would not have been the caregiver at the end of the line.
Carrie’s War is a book well worth reading. The characters, sometimes larger than life are well crafted. There is an absorbing plot. The social and period details and the time and place of the novel are well done and there are pockets of coziness, warmth and so many descriptions of good food to lift one’s mood.
Ultimately it is the tale of Carrie’s personal struggles, in a new environment and hostile territory that make this book so compelling to read.
A month or so late, but here nevertheless, are my best books of 2020. It’s been hard to narrow down my top books of 2020 and I’ve chosen them based on how much I enjoyed and will choose to re-read them over any other form of merit. Do let me know if you enjoy any of these books yourself.
Here in no particular order are:
My Top 10 Books of 2020
1)Business as Usual by Jane Oliver
‘Business as Usual’, is told in the epistolary format from the point of view of a shopgirl working in the Book department of a major London departmental store (modelled after Selfridges). Due to her use of initiative, education and common sense the young shop girl rises through the ranks of the store, much to the wrath of her peers and delight of the reader.
The book is set in the time of the Great Depression and is told in a witty, charming style. The book reminded me a little of my favourite Diary of a Provincial Lady and Mrs Tim’s Diaries. This is just a lovely, lovely book. So endearing and just what I needed during this year. A lovely publication from Handheld Press.
2)The Proper Place by O Douglas
What an astonishingly beautiful book and one that is relatively unknown!
‘The Proper Place’ by O Douglas was a soft, soothing book, full of romance and the appreciation of everyday life and things.
A landed aristocratic family are rooted from their family homestead and are transplanted to a small house overlooking the sea in a Scottish seaside town. The village has lots of ordinary people and this is the story of the new friendships made and comforts drawn from kindness and fellow feeling. The protagonist of the book, young Nicole has an optimistic, sunny and kind personality. She befriends each and everyone of the village residents. This almost feels like a small Jane Austen novel. The formula of a small village and a handful of characters applies here.
This is a sunny, warming and moving read.
3)Vittoria Cottage by DE Stevenson
‘Vittoria Cottage’ by DE Stevenson was such a joy to read. The book was the first in the Dering trilogy.
Vittoria Cottage tells the story of widowed Caroline. She leads a simple but contented life in the Scottish Countryside. She has two daughters and a son who works abroad.
It would seem she has everything in life but love. A newcomer, a man called Robert comes to stay at their quiet Scottish village and his past is shrouded in mystery. Slowly Caroline learns that she is not as contented as she thought she was with her quiet life.
The descriptions of Caroline’s life, home and garden and her love of finding joy in the small things were my favourite things about the novel.
4)Fell Farm Campers by Marjorie Lloyd
This book reminded me somewhat of an Austen novel. A few people in a small village and a few probable couples. What it does lack is Austen’s sparkling dialogue. I found Stevenson’s style of writing to be more mellow in this book (as compared to Miss Buncle and Mrs Tim). But I don’t mind this mellow style of writing with a lack of intricate plot either.
I fell in love with this little book set in the Lake District. The stories are a little reminiscent of the Arthur Ransome stories in that the location is similar. The children here have land adventures rather than adventures in sailing. This reminded me a little of Swallowdale and Pigeon Post in this respect. A group of children who are all part of one family – two sets of twins and a singleton, take advantage of their holiday time and camp near Fell Farm, rigging tents, cooking meals and enjoying countryside activities like races and hiking. One of the chapters describes a long hike across Bowfell and Langdale Pikes. One of the children is a bird enthusiast. The adventures are simple and describe the terrain using the actual names in great detail. A great treat to read for someone who is wanting more Arthur Ransome like adventures!
5)Miss Mole by EH Young
Miss Mole is a middle aged woman, a bit down on her luck and finding herself out of a job, all of a sudden. She accepts a job as a housekeeper/governess to a vicar’s family – the vicar being a widower. There are two girls and one boy under Miss Mole’s care and they all have troubles of their own. As Miss Mole tries to solve the troubles of the young family we learn more and more about Miss Mole herself, a few of her prospective love interests and a few surprising things about her past.
At once, this book is a funny yet tragic novel. It lays bare all of Miss Mole’s insecurities, her losses and the reason behind her leading such a sorry life.
Miss Mole is a quirky character in the style of the Provincial Lady, the protagonist in The Lark, Cassandra in I Capture the Castle, Mrs Tim and a host of other lovable characters.
Slightly humorous, slightly quirky, slightly Mary Poppins- ish, and very sad – this is a wonderful, wonderful novel.
6)Nella Last’s War by Nella Last
I’ve read ‘Nella Last’s War’ (edited by Broad and Fleming) during July and can’t tell you how much I loved reading it. I read a lot of WW2 diaries but this one struck me as being very special.
Perhaps the reason was that the lady behind the diary, struck me as extremely vulnerable, stating quite clearly her hopes and fears, worries and ambitions.
She also struck me as a very down to earth woman, a woman who appreciated the little things in life. One of her most favourite things was to visit Lake Coniston every Sunday and enjoy the peacefulness there. She was extremely resourceful, working tirelessly at the Woman’s Voluntary Service, the canteen and a Red Cross Shop. She was also very thrifty – making the best of wartime rationing. Her pride and joy were her two sons – one of whom was in active service.
Nella Last was incredibly prolific as a writer. She wrote these diaries as part of the government’s Mass Observation project. Her diaries are one of the most detailed and useful to this day. She talks about a gamut of social issues, she talks about her pets, War shelters, sex and her difficult relationship with her husband. I find the editing in this edition to be wonderful – full of useful foot notes about political events in the war.
Highly recommend as one of the best WW2 diaries I have read.
7) Drawn from Memory by EH Shepard
Drawn from Memory’ features a year in the life of eight year old EH Shepard (famous illustrator of the Winnie the Pooh books among others) – a halcyon age in a terraced house in London with his siblings and loving parents. Shepard spent his spare time riding his wooden horse with wheels – ‘Septimus’ on the flagstone path in front of their house and observing the buzz of London life around him. It was the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and the festivities are wonderfully captured, both in Shepard’s words and images. A holiday at a Kentish farm, descriptions of Christmas celebrations at home, school life and much more make this book particularly delightful. It is a charming period piece, bringing to life Victorian traditions and customs, made particularly poignant by the knowledge that Shepard would soon lose his beloved mother. On each and every page, there are glorious illustrations which bring Shepard’s musings to life.
8) O, The Brave Music by Dorothy Evelyn Smith (Best Fiction Book of 2020)
Probably my most favourite book of the year goes to ‘O, The Brave Music’ by Dorothy Evelyn Smith.
O The Brave Music’ is a coming of age novel about a young child who experiences a number of losses, early on in her life. Despite the extraordinary and quite oppressive circumstances of her childhood, this is a joyous novel which is rooted in the firm and deeply devotional love for a boy, five years her senior. A have a more in depth review here.
9) Sally’s Family by Gwendoline Courtney
Gwendoline Courtney was a new author to me, discovered partly from my interest in the Girls Gone By Publishing backlist and partly from reviews from several enthusiastic Bookstagrammers.
It’s a story about a family of young children, orphaned and separated during the War, who are brought together by their eldest sister, who takes care of them in a house in an English village. The reason I had wanted to read this – is special Christmas chapter. In fact one of the earlier vintage editions of this book had a gorgeous Christmassy cover.
A really heartwarming, cozy family story, extolling the values of compassion, care, hard work, family and much more.
10) Black Hunting Whip by Monica Edwards
Another discovery from the GGBP backlist and a fantastic read for me was Monica Edward’s ‘Black Hunting Whip’.
My last read of 2020 was Monica Edward’s ‘Black Hunting Whip’. I’d been searching for this title for a few years and my brother sent it to me as a Christmas present. It is set around Christmastime which makes it an appropriate read too!
It turned out to be one of my favourite books of the year. Cozy, charming, part mystery, part countryside book with lots of animals I just loved the writing and fell in love with the characters. If you are interested in reading a major spoiler free review – you can read more here.
Laurie Lee’s wonderful evocation of his childhood, in a small Cotswold village in ‘Cider With Rosie’ was a memorable recent read.
The book starts in the wake of the First World War. Lee was at the time just a small boy of three. There is a quite mesmerising description of Lee being handed down from the cart that brought them to their crumbling Cotswold cottage, and him standing in the grass in a field in front of his house – grass so tall in the month of June that it towered over his head – ‘each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight’.
Each recapitulation is so vivid that it really set’s the reader’s imagination ablaze with heady imagery. The prose is packed with descriptors that really bring to life every sensory detail. Laurie Lee takes us down memory lane. One by one the people, places and incidents of his childhood are recounted but in a way, that immerses us in the landscape- to witness the peculiar activities of the elderly old ladies who are their close neighbours (Granny Trill and Granny Wallon), to hear and feel the rush of rain, clap of thunder of a great storm that practically submerges their low lying cottage, and to breathe in and taste the heady flavour of cider from the bounty of apples from the valley.
It is not an entirely bucolic evocation of a perfect childhood. There are plenty of disturbing stories of village incidents, criminal activities, death, poverty and decay. Some of them are harrowing to say the least. But I would say, that one takes away a rather sunny, if realistic, snapshot on the whole, of childhood in the Cotswold village.
Some of the people we meet in ‘Cider With Rosie’ seem larger than life. Granny Trill and Granny Wallon are the family’s neighbours – and Laurie Lee certainly conjures them up as having slightly spooky, witch-like characteristics – Granny Wallon distilling fine wines from the wild growth of the surrounding fields and hedges – cowslips, dandelions, elderflower and more. Granny Trill on the other hand followed a weird and wonderful primitive schedule – breakfasting at the crack of dawn and going to bed at 5 pm. Granny Trill also told weird and wonderful stories and took snuff out of a snuff box that the boys surreptitiously stole.
Lee’s Mother was an extraordinary, slightly eccentric woman who took care of her husband’s children from her first marriage and those of her own marriage, singlehandedly. It is true that there were a number of older step sisters who took care of the young brood- of which Laurie Lee or ‘Loll’ as he was affectionately called was one. Their Father left the family and never came back. Their Mother, started life as a housemaid and served the gentry for several years in various country houses before accepting a position as a housekeeper to their Father’s household. She frequently recalled the fine details of the serving dishes, silverware, food and customs of the gentry. She later retained this affection for beautiful things and would often haunt auctions and sales for bargain treasures, which would grace their ramshackle Cotswold cottage – strewn with arts and artefacts, plants and flowers . Always short of money, the children would be sent to their neighbours for a bit of salt or some spare change to make ends meet.
Lee’s Mother had a keen eye for beauty, a love for poetry, music and nature. She was a true romantic and spent her entire life waiting for her husband to come back to her.
The chapter describing the tradition of carol singing by the young boys of the village is a classic extract, gracing many of the best Christmas anthologies. I was delighted to read it within the context of Lee’s memoir. Just as memorable, is the description of summer, the harvesting of apples, the making of cider, the long walks and picnics through the valley. The change of seasons and the beauty that accompanies them are described evocatively in the book.
There are many other intimate moments, too numerous to describe in this review that make this book very special. The people, sense of place and incidents are remarkable but the whole is lifted to another plane of excellence by Laurie Lee’s exceptional gift for prose – poetic and uplifting. ‘Cider With Rosie’ is a little gem of a book – to be re read ever so often – to glean new and wondrous details.
My edition of ‘Cider With Rosie’ was a press copy from Slightly Foxed but all opinions are my own.
‘Rhododendron Pie’ is the story of young Ann Laventie, the youngest child in the artistic and well to do Laventie family, who does not fit the artistic mould of the rest of the family. The book addresses her internal struggles of whether or not to break off from the family ideal or to embrace a life and attitude, more fitting with her disposition.
The Laventie family are outsiders in the small and sleepy village on the Sussex Downs, where the family and is predecessors have lived for many years. There is a touch of snobbery in this dissociation, in that the family choose to separate themselves from the village folk and see themselves as a class apart from everyone else. Hence, friendly fellow feeling with neighbours has never really been advocated – rather artistic people from London circles and beyond inhabit ‘Whitenights’ – the Laventie home – and provide intellectual succour to its inhabitants.
There are three Laventie children. Elizabeth, the eldest (25 at the beginning of the story) is a literary critic, Dick the middle child, a sculptor, and Ann – the youngest Laventie child (aged 20 in the story) has no evident talent – except for a deep appreciation of life and what makes life more interesting.
When the children were young, they struck upon a tradition of having a pie filled with flowers for their respective birthdays. The idea was Elizabeth’s but it soon spread to Dick and in turn to Ann. Dick’s Pie had heliotropes and it fell to Ann’s lot to have rhododendron pie for her birthday.
Although the other two children thrilled at the sensation and whimsy of having inedible flowers in their birthday pies, Ann fought hard to suppress her feeling of disappointment in the contents of her pie – she wanted nothing more than cloves and the sweetness of apples to savour and enjoy.
When the story starts in earnest, the children are all grown up and are ready to spread their wings into the world. Elizabeth flourishes as a literary critic and takes up a flat in London to mix with the literary set. Dick is a sculptor having many female admirers and Ann befriends Gilbert Croy, a up and coming film maker who stays at Whitenights for months on end – ‘for inspiration’.
One should mention the children’s mother. She is a quiet industrious woman who is sadly disabled. Unknowingly to the family and the whole world, she is the one who looks into the smooth running of the Laventie household, the hundred and one tedious domestic details that create such an appealing atmosphere at Whitenights. Without her ministrations the Laventie’s would not enjoy the comforts of the home and feel inspired to be so creative.
Ann is the only member of the Laventie family who has a close friendship with other people in the village. Since childhood she has a close friendship with the members of the Gayford clan. Elizabeth and Dick turn down their noses at their company but Ann rather enjoys spending time with the friendly and homely family, particularly John Gayford who is clearly besotted with Ann.
Things come to a head when Ann must decide whether or not she must embrace a bohemian, artistic attitude to life or follow her heart and enjoy life in the style she see’s fit.
I really enjoyed this novel and I thought it was a remarkably well constructed debut novel for Margery Sharp. Apart from the writing, and touches of whimsy that we expect from Margery Sharp, I thought Sharp developed quite a succinct theme for her book. I particularly enjoyed how we saw the beauty of the world and the simple enjoyment Ann gleaned from everyday life – be that in the appreciation of nature, the home, simple pastimes or time spent with friends and family. Ann didn’t have the quirky charm of Cluny Brown or the whimsical appeal of Martha – but she was a finely created Sharp protagonist.
There’s an incident in the book where Ann disappears into a secret spot of hers on a window seat in the attic with a large puzzle and two bananas. This is the way that Ann likes to spend time by herself. There’s a description of how Ann likes to approach doing a puzzle that for some reason just really appealed to me – perhaps because I like doing puzzles in the same way. Sometimes the smallest of cozy ordinary details about living – really add enjoyment to the book. Similarly, Ann spends time on the Sussex Downs with John, or an afternoon at a seaside town or in a London with friends – ans I found all these descriptions very enjoyable.
I look forward to reading the other Furrowed Middlebrow- Margery Sharp releases soon.
I received an e book Press copy of ‘Rhododendron Pie’ from Dean Street Press but all opinions about the book are my own.