Book review

Carrie's War by Nina Bawden (1973)

It's really difficult to imagine what it must have been like to be evacuated as a child during the Second World War:

' ... During the war - when England was at war with Germany. The Government sent the children out of the cities so they shouldn't be bombed. We weren't told where we were going. Just told to turn up at our schools with a packed lunch and a change of clothes, then we went to the station with our teachers. There were whole train-loads of children sent away like that ...

It must have been a strange experience. Arriving in an unknown place, settling in with an unknown family, having to adapt to a different way of life. Some children had a marvellous time and some had a miserable time.

This is a story about Carrie and her brother, Nick, who are evacuated to a Welsh mining town. I'm not even sure if they count themselves lucky or unlucky in the household where they go to live. They find themselves living above a grocer's shop. Mr Evans, the grocer, is a bully, but his sister, who the children call Auntie Lou, is loving and eager to please. It might have been rather grim accommodation, except for the discovery of Hepzibah Green and the retarded Johnny Gotobed, living quietly at Druid's Bottom.

Surprisingly, Druid's Bottom is the rather grand home of Mr Evans' other sister, Dilys Gotobed, who had married the mine-owner and lived a life of luxury, until the money ran out. Widowed now, and dying, she lives an isolated life with her housekeeper, Hepzibah Green. When Carrie and Nick first go to visit at Druid's Bottom they find another evacuee, Albert Sandwich, living there: but it is Hepzibah Green who makes everyone's time at Druid's Bottom so magical. Warm and welcoming, loving and caring, with a special kind of insight into everyone's heart:

Albert pushed the goose down and tied the string round the top of the bag. 'She's a witch,' he said calmly.
'A witch?'
He grinned at her. 'Oh, not what you're thinking of. Not black cats and broomsticks! Just what country people call a wise woman. When I was ill she gave me some herbs made into a medicine and I got better quite quickly. The doctor was amazed - he had thought I was going to die. I never thought that lad would see the spring, was what he told Hepzibah.'

She tells a brilliant story too. Tucked up round the kitchen range, it's deliciously cozy. But for Carrie, away from home and having to make all her own judgements, it isn't easy to separate reality from fantasy. For instance, can the 'screaming skull' that's kept in the library really bring a curse down on the inhabitants of Druid's Bottom if it is removed from the house? Albert says no, but to Carrie, things aren't necessarily that simple.

This story is really about how Carrie tries to understand the people around her. Not only Albert and her brother, Nick, but also the grown-ups - the difficult Mr Evans and the dying Mrs Gotobed. With the best of intentions, she makes some mistakes, and as you will see when you read this book, it is only when she returns to Druid's Bottom as an adult that she is able to understand fully her experiences there as a young evacuee.

This is an emotional book which I found hard to put down. And, it is beautifully finished off. I do like all the loose ends tied up. I think you will really enjoy this one.

What can I read next?

Nina Bawden has written plenty of other books. You might like to look at:

And if you are interested in life as an evacuee, you might like to look at this book by Michelle Magorian:

Quite honestly, if you really like the sense of innocence and freedom which was part of being a child in the 1930's and 1940's, you may really enjoy all those books by Arthur Ransome:

... and there are more by Arthur Ransome.

And on a different theme, but with a similar kind of feel, you could have a look at the series of five books by Susan Cooper, known as The Dark is Rising sequence:

Or possibly, Alan Garner's books might interest you:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

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