It’s my #KeepKidsReading week, which means I get to write about some wonderful children’s literature. On Wednesday I posted about a new author, Benjamin Dean, and his first novel, published last year, called Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow. Today, it’s time for something altogether different, one of the classics of children’s fiction, Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden. First published in 1974, the author drew on her experiences as an evacuee during the Second World War when she was sent to Wales.
The book opens with the central character, Carrie, returning to Wales where she and her brother Nick were evacuated during the war. She was twelve and he was ten years old at the time. Carrie, now widowed, has brought her four children to the small town, and tells them about her time there, about Mr Evans, the parsimonious shopkeeper, and his sister, Aunty Lou, with whom Carrie and Nick were sent to live. Carrie’s friend Albert was sent to the manor house outside of town called Druid’s Bottom, which was owned by Mr and Miss Evans’s sister, the elderly and poorly Mrs Gotobed, who has been estranged from her siblings since she married ‘up’ many years previously.
Carrie and Nick visit Albert and find Druid’s Bottom a much more inviting place than their own accommodation. Mrs Gotobed’s housekeeper is Hepzibah Green, who also cares for Mister Johnny, a simpleton who has limited language and intellectual skills, but a high level of intuition and empathy. Hepzibah tells the children all sorts of stories about Druid’s Bottom, including the legend of the skull of the slave boy. Apparently, when he died, the slave put a spell on the house, that if his skull ever left it, disaster would strike the estate and all those living there. Mr Evans believes Hepzibah to be a witch who is only after his sister’s money.
When Mrs Gotobed dies, Mr Evans, as her only living male relative, will inherit the property and intends to turn out Hepzibah and Mister Johnny. Albert believes the old lady would not have wanted this and that she must have left a will to that effect. When none is found, Albert tells Carrie he believes Mr Evans stole and destroyed it, just to keep his sister’s old housekeeper from living there.
Carrie and Nick are called back to live with their mother, who has moved to Glasgow where she is an ambulance driver. On their last night at Druid’s Bottom, Carrie tosses the slave boy’s skull into the horse pond, wishing ill upon the house, which now belongs to Mr Evans, as she is so angry with him. As the children leave on the train the next morning, they pass the old house, only to see it in flames. She had not expected the spell the be enacted so fast. Carrie has believed her whole life that she is responsible for the fire and that all the residents (Albert, Hepzibah and Mister Johnny) must have perished. She is so sure of her guilt that she never bothers to find out what actually happened.
Early one morning on their visit to Wales, Carrie’s children walk to Druid’s Bottom before their mother wakes up. The house remains derelict, but they find the now very old Hepzibah and Mister Johnny living happily in a converted barn in the grounds. Hepzibah recounts what really happened in the years since Carrie and Nick left and it was not at all like Carrie feared. She laughs at their hints that she is some sort of witch, as their mother had believed (in the nicest possible sense), giving rational explanations for all the seemingly mysterious occurrences, but the ending of the book is ambiguous on this point. It’s fascinating that modern books for children rarely leave this element of doubt, this unanswered question. Are today’s children really less tolerant of ambiguity?
Like Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow this is a ‘middle-grade’ book, and the central character is twelve years old. But, as you would expect from a book written almost fifty years ago, there is a kind of innocence that today’s children may find off-putting. The language and the structure are fairly simple and the setting not too difficult to imagine, so this book would probably suit the 8–10 year-old modern reader. Its themes are perhaps more complex than you might expect though, and it is multi-layered. On the one hand, a younger child could make a very simple reading – there is history of a certain aspect of the war they will be familiar with (I think my son read this in primary school as part of their learning about the war), there are some superficially obvious goodies and baddies, and the story is straightforward. For a more sophisticated reader, however, there is a more nuanced interpretation of the characters – about what underlies Mr Evans’s sadness and therefore his behaviour and attitudes as an adult, about the power of legends, and about the experiences of relatively young children thrust into situations beyond their control which were sometimes frightening.
Nina Bawden’s first novel was actually an adult crime novel, but she then turned her hand to children’s fiction and was hugely successful. Carrie’s War was her third book for children and arguably her best-known. Her other books include The Peppermint Pig and The Robbers.
She was awarded a CBE in 1995 and died in 2012.
This book deserves a place on every child’s bookshelf.