Wednesday 28 January 2015

Ronnie's war by Bernard Ashley

Ronnie’s war by Bernard Ashley (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2010)

ISBN 978-1-84780-162-3

190 pages; 4 sections (Blitzkrieg, Top bunk boy, The American captain, Man of the house)

Subjects: World War Two, London, England, evacuees, Blitz, Americans, VE Day, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

When war is declared in 1939, Ronnie is a boy of eleven. By VE Day, he is a young man who has left school and is working as a spot welder, although his mother wants him to get an engineering apprenticeship. In-between times, the story takes us through his experiences in four separate sections. He is caught in the Blitz, and then evacuated to a village in Lancashire where he has to cope with a chilly welcome in his new home and a hostile reception and bullying teacher at school. His father is called up for the Royal Artillery and goes missing in action, probably in the Far East. Ronnie and his mother move out of London to another village in Essex where she gets a job working on an American Air Force base.  

The scene where Ronnie goes to look for his mother is a dramatic description of the aftermath of an air raid (there is a similar scene in The machine gunners by Robert Westall, when Chas and his dad make their way across town to try and find out if his grandparents are still alive.) His relationship with his mother – its ups and downs, through his teenage years, but their underlying love for and loyalty to each other – provides a link between the four sections, as does their ongoing worry and uncertainty about what might have happened to his father.

There are many small details that help to build up a convincing picture of life in Britain during the war. I always enjoy these unexpected details – facts like what happened with the wartime football league (it was all “guest players and soldiers on leave”, and teams weren’t allowed to play more than 50km from home), or that the Anderson (air raid) shelters that people dug in their back yards had blackout curtains instead of a door. Playground games, lessons, slang and meals all have the ring of authenticity. It also features one of the few fictional descriptions of VE Day celebrations that I’ve read (there's another one in Charlotte sometimes by Penelope Farmer).

This review in the Guardian calls it "a slim, to-the-point volume that proves you don't need to fell an acre to conjure a convincing fictional world... Four vignettes, then, which quickly yet subtly build a full picture of what ordinary life was like for a child who spent their entire adolescence under the cloud of war."

The Historical Novel Society has another review which describes the book (with a few reservations) as "an interesting portrait of a young man in his formative years, which happen to occur against the backdrop of war". 

Author’s website
Bernard Ashley lives in London and worked for many years as a teacher and principal. His first children’s novel was published in 1974 and he has published dozens since then. One of the most well-known is Little soldier shortlisted for the Carnegie medal.

He has some lovely answers to questions hereI especially like his answer to a question I invariably get asked at every school visit: Where do you get your ideas from?
"All around me. One of the advantages of living a hectic life in one of the world's busiest cities is that there's no shortage of drama and excitement around me. Sometimes comedy, sometimes - sadly - tragedy. I never use the people I know, but certain themes recur in relationships. In the creation of characters I use bits of various people. Hitting on the right name for a character is a great help, like the right costume is to an actor."

And I liked what he said about doing research:
"My liking of travel is often satisfied by doing research for one of my stories.
I have to get it right! If I say this London bus takes you there you can depend on it being right. And if you can trust me in the practical things I hope you can trust me emotionally, too."

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