Thursday 25 June 2015

Carrie's war by Nina Bawden

Carrie’s war by Nina Bawden (Puffin, 2005; first published by Victor Gollancz, 1973)

ISBN 0-140-36456-0

15 chapters; 192 pages

Subjects: World War Two, England, Wales, evacuees, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

There are several different covers. The book I read had this cover, but in orange, not purple.

Now published in the Puffin Modem Classic series, this book is set in war time, when 11-year-old Carrie Willow and her younger brother Nick are sent to live in a mining village in Wales. But the “war” in the title is Carrie’s own internal war as well. The closest the actual war comes to this remote village is when an American soldier arrives to visit Auntie Lou, or when Mr Evans’ son Frederick comes home on leave. 

It is a lovely story, beautifully told, with a vivid setting and unforgettable characters. The main narrative is bookended by the story of the grown-up Carrie, coming back 30 years later to the oddly named Druid’s Bottom with her own children. She recalls the people who lived there: Albert Sandwich, Dilys Gotobed, Hephzibah Green and Mister Johnny, but then describes something as “the worst thing she ever did” and won’t go any further.    

One reason this story seems so firmly anchored in the past is that Carrie doesn’t know what happened to Druid’s Bottom and its inhabitants for 30 years, and it’s hard to imagine that being the case today, in a world of Google, texts, instant communication and information overload.


The annual “Great Reading Adventure” tries to get people in the English city of Bristol reading and talking about the same book.  For the 2005 Great Reading Adventure, they also chose Carrie’s war to get younger readers involved. The activity pack has some excellent info from pg 14 on about British evacuees and how the evacuation process was organised:
  • The British Committee of Evacuation was set up on 26 May 1938
  • Evacuation areas (places likely to be bombed) included London, Portsmouth, Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow
  • Those evacuated were children aged 5-15, mothers with children under 5, pregnant women and disabled people. Most children were sent away in school groups with their teachers
  • Britain and her Allies declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. By Christmas 1939, half the children who had gone away returned home as the expected air raids hadn’t happened. However, in June 1940, the Germans occupied France. Evacuation began once more and many children did not see their homes again until the end of the war in 1945
  • Parents were given lists of what to pack: a gas mask, identity card, ration book, woolly jumper, warm coat, handkerchief, socks and shoes. The evacuees had labels tied around their necks with their names and addresses on. They left the cities on trains and buses
  • Over three million children were evacuated during the war in Britain.

About the author
Nina Bawden was herself evacuated to Wales in the war. ‘Carrie’s story is not mine, but her feelings about being away from home for the first time are ones I remember…the sense of not being watched, brooded over by concerned adults, was heady.’ She says (in The Great Reading Adventure notes): ‘I like writing for children. It seems to me that most people underestimate their understanding and the strength of their feelings and in my books for them I try to put this right.’

She was seriously injured in the Potters Car rail crash in 2002, in which her husband died.  

Nina Bawden wrote more than 40 novels. She died in 2012, aged 87. 

This article in the Guardianwritten after her death, talks about how Carrie’s war “has had an incendiary impact on our imagination not because it is explosive in any military sense – the guns and bombs of the second world war are not much in evidence in Druid's Bottom” but because “the novel speaks with painful truth about the ripple effects of war.

Other books you might like
Nina Bawden writes about her childhood in her autobiography In My Own Time (1995) and her book Keeping Henry is also about evacuees who are sent to Wales.

Other books on this blog that cover different aspects of the evacuee experience are Archie’s war, Lord of the nutcracker men, When the siren wailed and Ronnie’s war.   

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Thursday 11 June 2015

No stars at the circus by Mary Finn

No stars at the circus: to hide is to survive by Mary Finn (Walker Books, 2014)

ISBN 978-1-4063-4733-3

Chapters (unnumbered) each about 4-5 pgs long; 266 pages

Subjects: World War Two, France, Paris, Jews, circus, family, deaf, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

Ten-year-old Jonas Alber lives in Paris with his father (a watchmaker and jeweller), his mother (a former pianist) and his younger sister Nadia, who is deaf. When the Germans occupy the city, the family is forced to leave behind their shop and their home and move to another part of town. Jonas makes friends with an Italian family who are part of a circus troupe, and by chance, he is staying with them during the night of 16 July 1942, known as la Rafle, when thousands of Jewish men, women and children were rounded up. Jonas finds out later that these people were held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver (Vel’ d’Hiv for short) for several days and eventually sent eastwards. He doesn’t know what has happened to them after that (and it’s possible he will never know.)  

By another lucky chance, his mother has slipped into his pocket the address of her former piano teacher, and when it becomes too dangerous for him to stay with the circus folk, he is smuggled into the Professor’s house. “We just don’t know where the boy’s family was sent to. We became his second family," says Signor Corrado. "Now, Monsieur, I’m asking you to be his third.”

Jonas lives in hiding in an attic and keeps a diary in a series of notebooks, until even the Professor’s house is not safe any more and a new plan has to be made for him. 

Jonas’ family life is lovingly drawn, and his parents’ care and concern for their children in the privations of war is easy to see. A lot is made of the special sign language that the family has developed to be able to communicate with Nadia.  I kept expecting this to play some crucial part in the plot, but when it was finally used, it was a bit of a letdown as the same information was soon afterwards delivered in spoken form.  

An afterword explains some of the historical facts on which the story is based. The chance meeting between Jonas and the circus folk seems a bit too coincidental; however, Mary Finn explains that “the circus, if not perhaps my Italians, was real, even during the Occupation of Paris. I found it in wartime photographs taken by Robert Doisneau… and others.”

After all, many events in life do stem from a chance encounter – and after this first meeting, the events that follow are steered by Jonas’ own character. It is because he is the sort of boy he is – outgoing, curious, engaging, interested in the world – that the circus performers respond to him, become fond of him, include him in their routines and call on him when they need help – and are then able to help him in turn. 

The author is good at showing us only what Jonas knows, or can understand, and his ten-year-old voice (with its occasional asides and jokes) is very convincing. The relationship between him and the Professor is also a significant part of the story.

The lovereading4kids site includes a summary which is also available elsewhere.  And here is another review on the Snuggling on the sofa blog (nice name!) 

Author’s website
This interview was published in Lovereading4kids for the publication of Mary Finn’s debut novel, Anila’s journey“Mary Finn worked for years as a magazine journalist with Radio Telefis Eireann, the Irish Broadcasting service. She lives in Dublin with her son and works as a freelance writer. Ten Things you didn’t know about Mary Finn include the fact that she and her son once met Roald Dahl in Galway.

Another interview on Gobblefunked talks about the inspiration for and process of writing the book. She also talks about exactly which parts of Paris in her book (streets, parks and statues) are real. "But the original prompt for my story came when I saw the plaques erected on so many school walls, in the centre of Paris as throughout France. These remember the Jewish pupils, seized by the Nazis, who never returned to their schools."

Other books you might like
My book Lighthouse familyset in WW2, also includes a deaf sibling: Frances' younger brother Stephen. I found out during my research for this book that the use of sign language was frowned on at the time, at least in the New Zealand of the 1940s. Deaf children were encouraged to rely on lip reading, but in schools for the deaf they would use sign language out of sight of the teachers.

NZ connections
New Zealand even gets a mention here! Jonas has little to read except for an encyclopaedia, where he reads about basking sharks, salmon and albatrosses that “go to places like New Zealand” to lay their eggs and “lay them near a cliff so the first thing the chick will see when it hatches is the ocean.”

Things I didn’t know
Every time I read a children’s book set in war time, I pick up some new snippet of information. I’ve recently read Suite Francaise, by Irène Némirovsky  (1903-1942) about life in France under German occupation. I probably won’t review it here as it’s not a children’s book (although some young adults might read it) but it contains detailed descriptions of the panicked flight from Paris that so many people undertook. However, even that book didn’t include this detail of the “cloud of black smoke” that drifted over Paris and “rained black rain”, because the car factories on the outskirts of the city were burning.

Flea circuses are a real thing, with a long history! (Did you know a flea can jump 30,000 times without a break?)  (Who counted??)

La Rafle: this article in the NY Times points out how the round-up of Parisian Jews was planned for the night of 14 July, until it was realised that Bastille Day might not be the best date to choose.

There is a memorial at the Vélodrome d’Hiver (Vel’ d’Hiv for short)

Paris, France.  Monument to the Victims of the Deportation to the Velodrome d'Hiver byWalter Spitzer, dedicated 1994. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012.
Robert Doisneau is mentioned by Mary Finn as a wartime photographer whose most famous photograph, taken in 1950 for Life magazine, is “Le baiser de l'hôtel de ville (The Kiss by the Hotel de Ville). This article tells the story behind the photo, including law suits and disputed identities. You can see the famous photo and read more about him here.

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!