A warm-hearted, well written story: Unusual friendship in World War 2 on the Home Front
I had enjoyed, with reservations, Lissa Evans earlier book, Their Finest Hour and A Half, also set on the Home Front during World War 2, which featured a film crew turning out Ministry of Information Films. Evans has a nice line in both humour and pathos, but my reservations of that earlier book were that characters verged a little into caricature, and the book could have withstood a lot of cutting and paring back
In this later book she has done that paring back, and turned her attention to a smaller number of characters and central relationships
Noel is a 10 year old precocious orphan. Fiercely intelligent, a loner, a bit undersized and easily bullied. And he has a godmother whom he adores, and with whom he lives, rapidly heading for dementia and desperately trying to keep it together. Mattie is home schooling him, in rather anarchic fashion – particularly in left-wing politics, abhorrence of war, and feminist politics (she was a suffragette who was imprisoned and force fed for those pains) Both Noel and Mattie are desperately trying to avoid the authorities finding out how bad things are, and, particularly, neither want Noel to be evacuated to a safer place as the blitz begins to bite.
Unfortunately, all attempts fail, and an officious relative of Mattie’s steps in and Noel is evacuated to St Alban’s.
He is a rather unattractive looking child, and has retreated, in grief, to stoic silence, leading to all concluding he is simple minded. As it is the prettiest, most spic and span children who get first picked by host families, Noel is the shop-soiled reject no-one wants. Until Vee, a desperately poor cleaner, on the verge of middle age, living by her wits, supporting her elderly mum and feckless adult son, sees an opportunity for a little extra cash coming her way, by taking in Noel for the duration. Much cleverer than Vee, who is actually possessed of a great deal of imagination and survivor instinct, given half a chance, the two slowly begin to make common ground, finding, for Vee, ways to avoid continuing to be the victim that class and some bad judgements have made of her, and, for Noel, putting his fertile intellect in the service of money making scams gives him the first small beginnings of escaping from grief.
Evans has created a couple of extremely likeable oddball, misfit characters whose relationship with each other, initially built on mutual dislike, slowly moves towards something bordering a kind of mutual respect based on what each can gain from the other, into a warm heartedness based initially on `being crooked’ in order to survive. There is plenty of humour to be found in the sharp exchanges between the two, with Vee, especially having much to learn from the greater intelligence and wisdom of her young evacuee
We’re telling people you’re my boy and then you’re using words like…like “original” and “hence” No one from St. Albans ever says “hence”. And you should say “my mum” not “my mother” and anyway you just don’t sound right. You sound as if you come from somewhere posh and I sound
`Common’, said Noel.
Vee coloured. `You don’t say things like that about people’, she said. She fiddled with her hat. She thought she’d been looking smart and now she felt like a greasy rag. `You don’t know anything about me,’ she said. `I was at school till I was fifteen, I was clever. I wanted to be a teacher.’
The nicely drawn supporting characters include Vee’s dotty mum, endlessly writing letters to Churchill and Chamberlain, offering them advice on winning the war, her adult son Donald, exempt from call-up through a dicky heart (and scams of his own to pursue) and another very aged suffragette whom Noel befriends.
What I particularly liked, is that for all Evans’ light touch, there are real emotions which the reader is confronted with. We end up rooting hard for this most unlikely pair of individuals, individually and together.
A definite feel-good read.