This is honest-to-goodness one of my favourite books in the entire Dear Canada/Dear America series. Jean Little, as I have mentioned before at length, is an absolute national treasure, and writes so beautifully with so much feeling and attention to detail, and nothing ever comes across as deliberately tugging on the heartstrings or using anything as a teaching moment. I think this one is the crown jewel of all her books in the Dear Canada collection, possibly because it’s drawing on her own experience of growing up during the Second World War. It’s wonderful.
Exiles from the War: The War Guests Diary of Charlotte Mary Twiss, Guelph, Ontario, 1940, Jean Little, 2010.
You know, to start with, the whole concept of war guest children is viscerally upsetting, and barely covered but at all in American history curriculums. I think the only place I ever encountered it as a kid was in the American Girl Molly books, which was a pretty milquetoast version. And then in university I did a major term paper on perceptions and memory among children who were sent away from London during the Blitz, and read Goodnight Mister Tom (among others), and cried and cried and cried. It was hard enough for kids who were sent away to the English countryside, but I cannot even imagine being sent to another country. The entire concept is deeply upsetting for everyone involved: the parents who are sending their children away in the hopes it will protect them; the kids who have to leave their homes for new ones for an indeterminate length of time; the families who are taking in total strangers.
The British My Story series has a book from the point of view of a girl sent to the countryside, but Exiles from the War opts to use a Canadian protagonist—which I think is a very interesting way to look at it. Charlotte, our protagonist, lives with her parents and elder sister Eleanor in Guelph, while her older brother George has gone to work at a farm, when she learns that her parents have applied for a War Guest child—and hopefully a girl around her own age, so the girl will have some company. Before this, the war seems fairly distant—dramatic, of course, and scary and exciting—but ultimately something that’s happening a long, long way away.
After a couple of weeks of waiting, they learn their War Guest girl is in Toronto, and as a bonus, they’re going to have two for a couple of weeks—their family friends across the way, the Bennetts, are getting a child too, but Mr. Bennett broke his leg, so they’re taking their kid in for a bit. Charlotte is incredibly disappointed—their girl, Jane, is only eight, and seems much younger. The Bennetts are taking her older brother, Sam, who is just the age of their son, Robbie. Jane is freaked out, sucks her thumb, needs a rubber sheet on the bed, and screams with nightmares. Charlotte was expecting someone more her own age—and maybe a girl like someone out of a book? “This will sound peculiar, but they are almost too real. The mystery has gone out of them.”
They introduce them to things like peanut butter, the Canadian words for things, the lack of blackout curtains, and Canadian money—but the way the war guests talk about the war suddenly makes it seem very real to Charlotte. One of the best things this book does is demonstrate Charlotte’s mixed feelings about everything that’s happening—she’s excited about having Jane come to live with them, but then she feels awkward and forgotten when Jane gets so much more attention than she does. Jane gets on her nerves, but then when Charlotte’s friends are mean to her, suddenly Jane feels like her real sister. And so on. It’s really marvellously done.
Anyway, Charlotte is feeling left out, but she does her best to help Jane feel at home with the rest of the family. They go on vacation to Muskoka, and Charlotte’s brother George comes for a visit while they’re there, and then when they come back Jane and Sam have their first mail from home. They’re homesick, and things are still awkward with them, but then when they’re all out shopping with Mrs. Twiss they run into a little girl who was on the ship over with Jane and Sam—Pixie, who is just five. It turns out that she’s staying with her aunt and uncle—but her father and uncle are stepbrothers, but her uncle is much older than her father, and not at all close, and when war was declared, Pixie was shipped right out to their home without so much as a notification. Poor girl. And the poor aunt who was expected to drop everything and look after her. And think for a second if you can imagine putting your five-year-old child on a ship to stay with distant relations you’ve met once or twice, and you aren’t sure when you’ll see her again! Oh my God. Anyway, Pixie comes to stay with Charlotte’s family half days until school starts, and suddenly Jane finds herself feeling awkward and left-out! How the tables have turned.
School begins, and at the same time the bombing of London, which terrifies Jane and Sam, but there’s nothing they can do. Then the worst news of all—the ship City of Benares is torpedoed and sunk on its way to Canada, bringing British child evacuees, and more of eighty of them are killed. George is so furious that he leaves school and enlists in the Navy, which terrifies Charlotte and her mother. He’s off just a week later. After he leaves, Mrs. Twiss gets a letter from Jane and Sam’s mother, saying their house was bombed and Sam’s room destroyed, and if they hadn’t been sent away, they’d have been killed for sure. Everything about this book is gut-wrenching. No, that’s a lie—the beauty of this book is that it blends these awful, horrible things with everyday life.
So while horrible things are happening in England, Charlotte takes Jane trick-or-treating and shows her how to rake leaves and they celebrate Jane’s birthday in November. Then Coventry is bombed, where Jane’s grandparents live, and Jane’s dog that they’re keeping goes missing. Poor Jane is frantic and there’s nothing Charlotte can do other than listen to her worry. When they finally do hear that her dog is OK, Jane gets terribly sick with pneumonia. She’s so sick she goes to the hospital for a few nights, but pulls through and comes home just before Christmas.
This paragraph is so beautiful I want to snip it all: “It feels like a tug-of-war. On one end of the rope is the Brownings being in danger, not knowing where George is, thinking of those Jewish children…remembering the City of Benares sinking and Coventry Cathedral being bombed. The thought of so much danger and hurt pulls at me, dragging me over into sadness and worry. But on the other end of the rope are Britty [their cat] and her kitten, good books to read, the poem Sam and I wrote, pulling Christmas crackers, and writing in you, dear Diary. These happy things drag me back to safety. Sometimes it feels as though I just catch my breath and then I am being hauled away again.” This is so beautiful.
In the new year Mrs. Twiss goes back to teaching, which she had done before getting married, and they hear that George is at sea—somewhere cold, that’s all they hear. Charlotte starts writing to George a few times a week—“I wonder how long it will be before George realizes what a fabulous sister I am. It is not easy to write when I don’t know what he is doing. I just chatter away about the kitten and Pixie’s funny ways and what books I am reading.” Luckily George loves it, and loves the pictures they send—and so does George’s friend Bertie, who thinks Eleanor is very beautiful!
George writes back that Bertie’s girl in England has been going out with other men while he’s away, and Bertie is heartbroken. In a frenzy of effort to do something helpful, Charlotte writes a letter and signs Eleanor’s name to it, just trying to cheer poor Bertie up, and then panics for a few weeks waiting to hear back. He does write back, eventually—thinking he’s writing to a pretty eighteen-year-old student, not that student’s twelve-year-old little sister with slightly more bravery than sense. She finally confesses to Eleanor, they have a major blowout fight, but Eleanor keeps writing to Bertie (although she refuses to tell Charlotte anything about it).
In the spring, they celebrate Easter, study for exams, and worry that they haven’t heard from George in a while. London is bombed heavily again, but the worst news is that at the end of May the family gets a telegram saying George’s ship was torpedoed and he is missing. Charlotte is frantic and her parents are beside themselves with worry, and the worst part is that there is nothing any of them can do but wait. After a week they get a cable saying he is alive and in hospital in England—he was in a lifeboat that drifted ashore, and he and Bertie are recovering, although Bertie was injured quite badly with a head wound.
They immediately begin writing to him—Eleanor sends Bertie some photos—and sending them treats and presents. Jane and Sam’s parents come to visit George in hospital—and Mrs. Browning is pregnant and due any day! Which is a terrific surprise to everyone, kids included—imagine being away from your parents and finding out you have a new sibling after they’ve been born? The very last entry in the diary is that Jane and Sam’s younger brother is born on Charlotte’s birthday.
In the epilogue, the Brownings stay in Canada until the end of the war, when Jane is thirteen and Sam is nearly done with high school, and poor Pixie is ten and only barely remembers her family in Britain. They go home, but Sam returns to Guelph for college and becomes a vet, and Jane becomes a librarian and stays in England. Pixie marries young and has a large family and lives near Jane, and when George comes home from England he brings a Scottish wife. Bertie is wounded too badly to return to normal life and spends three years in a convalescent hospital before returning to home for the rest of his life, and Eleanor contracts polio after the war and is crippled for the rest of her life, and they correspond. Charlotte becomes a physiotherapist and marries in her thirties, and the families remain close for the rest of their lives.
Rating: A. God, I love this book. The whole concept is so deeply upsetting (sending away your kids, leaving your home and worrying your family will be killed) that this book actually is a fascinating blend of the horror and the mundane. It’s just jam-packed with wonderful details—Halloween candy, Charlotte’s new reversible coat, jumping rope, hymns at Sunday School—and it brings to mind a wonderful sense of life. At the same time, Charlotte’s fear for her brother and her empathy for Jane and her family is taut and realistic. It’s wonderful from top to bottom. The change in Charlotte’s thoughts—from finding Jane kind of annoying to being like her real little sister—is wonderfully written, and very realistic—it’s not a lightbulb moment, and it goes back and forth, just like in real life. This is truly one of the best Dear Canada books, and an outstanding, wonderful effort by Jean Little. God, it’s good. Go read it.