Written in 1945, and the only one of Streatfeild's adult novels still in print, I came to this because Ballet Shoes was my favourite childhood book, and until very recently I wasn't aware she had written adult books too. As an added bonus it fits in well with the World War II challenge. The Wiltshires are a family of four children, Laurel, Tony,Kim and Tuesday.
As with many WWII novels the story centres on the realities of evacuation, but where this differs is that the Wiltshires are a middle class family, not a poor working class family. This is made clear from the start as the family are seen on the beach, with their nanny and governess, as well as their parents. It soon becomes clear though that although the father is very family orientated, the mother puts family life as a clear second to her role as wife and lover.
"He would have gone into the tent to put on his things. When they were first married, or even a few years ago, she would have gone with him. She would not have missed those seconds in the hot tent, the flash of passion that would have come from the closeness of his cool, naked body. But he had got so self conscious, always worrying about what the children were thinking."
Lena does not really take much of an interest in the children's emotional well-being. She is there as quite an aloof mother, playing with the children only when it seems to her it would be a perfect scene of idyllic motherhood. Lena likes to put on a show for others, and to be seen as a perfect, ideal family. She dresses the children nicely, and on occasions where others will see, she makes a great fuss of her children.
"Lena had Kim next to her. He really was a most ornamental child, both in looks and the way he said things. She saw that with charmed smiles the next table were listening. She led Kim on."
However, despite this the children are happy. This contented little unit is shattered when war breaks out and the children have to leave London. They are evacuated to their grandparents house, without Lena, who refuses to leave Alex. From here the novel becomes an examination of how children react to the displacement of war, and deal with loss and grief.
As the war progresses, the children lose more and more of the things that are precious to them, both through the tragedies of war, and the unthinking actions of adults. They are shifted from school to school and from one relative to another during holidays. They lose the presence of their governess as she goes off to assist in the war effort. They all suffer, in very different ways, and the novel finishes with them all in a very delicate emotional state, and we are not assured of their future well being.
Lena must take the brunt of the blame for the suffering caused to the children. Although she could have done nothing about the tragedies caused by war, and the need to move from their London home, she could have provided a more stable base for her children. She failed to understand their real needs and became lost in her own difficulties.
The suffering of children is one of the main themes of this book. The Wiltshires suffer because of war, and their mother's inability to be the stable, caring mother they so desperately need. The children are victims of fate really. In traditional tragedy conventions, they are acted upon rather than having much of a say in their own fate. It is important letters that go missing, overheard conversations, and adult relationships impacting upon them. Even right at the end of the novel it is made clear that the adults have not understood the extent of the suffering the children have endured, with the last line
"We got a lot to be thankful for in this country. Our kids 'avent't suffered 'o-ever else 'as"
I really enjoyed this book. Although it differs in theme from her childrens books, it is similar in that is dealing with childrens emotional states. As well as the psychological issues war can cause in children, I found it interesting to view the evacuation from a more middle class perspective, as this is usually seen in literature with working class children. And finally, I think I need to return to Ballet Shoes to see how it compares to this, and get an adult perspective on the fossil family.