We’re back in the Second World War with another Blitz evacuation novel! I feel like I’ve just done one, but Exiles from the War last month is on the opposite side of the evacuation. I just finished reading (for my own enjoyment, not the blog) The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and while I enjoyed it, it was so reminiscent of Goodnight Mister Tom that at several points I caught myself going “I feel like I’ve read this before.”
My Story: Blitz, A Wartime Girl’s Diary, 1940-41, Vince Cross, 2001.
This is one of those books that isn’t bad, but it certainly isn’t knock-your-socks-off amazing. It’s more of a “well, that was interesting, I guess.” I know that doesn’t sound entirely promising, but it’s not that bad! It’s just a little on the bland side. If terrible Dear America and My Story novels are the equivalent of, I don’t know, spoiled fish seasoned with lawn fertilizer, and really outstanding ones are chocolate mousse cake with whipped cream, this is…instant oatmeal. It’s not bad, it’ll feed you when you’re hungry in a pinch, but no one is going to mistake it for haute cuisine. Although no one is going to mistake it for fish food, either, so…win-win?
Extended food metaphors aside, Edie lives with her parents and siblings in Lewisham in the summer of 1940, where almost all the other children have left due to fear of the bombings. Her older sister Shirley works in a department store, and her bratty younger brother Tom is constantly in and out of trouble. Her two oldest siblings, Frank and Maureen, have both enlisted—Frank in the RAF and Maureen in “something” that Edie can’t quite identify—so it’s the three youngest children and their parents at home. While there haven’t been any bombs yet, the family has an Anderson shelter in their yard and the neighbourhood is growing more and more antsy every day.
While Edie’s mother enlists as an air raid warden, she takes the kids on a brief vacation in August to see her sister, Mavis, who is clearly not at all well. While they’re there, Edie and Tom see an actual dogfight, which brings the war a little bit closer than it has been. When they return home, they hear that a spy has been caught in the market, and then at the end of the month the first bombs come. And then in September the real bombing begins in earnest—day after day after day, day and night, you name it. Edie’s mother is very shaken up by the number of dead that are turning up, and her father—a firefighter—is working nearly around the clock. They argue with Shirley, who goes out to parties and dancing almost every night and argues why not, when they might all be dead tomorrow; and they are constantly after Tom, who is forever getting into trouble with his friends.
So all in all things are not going well for the family, and Tom’s behaviour only grows worse—dicking around with unexploded bombs he and his friends find, mucking around in other people’s property, and finally getting dragged home by a policeman. The last straw is when Tom is caught stealing from the penny candy store—that’s when Edie’s parents decide to send her and Tom away with the other evacuees, to keep them safe as much to keep Tom from hanging around with his terrible friends. So at the end of October, the two of them are packed off to South Wales, with a secret ten pounds that Shirley lends Edie for an emergency.
Unfortunately, things with the James family in Wales aren’t all that much better than they were in London. They gripe at the kids about everything—their manners, their clothing, the noise they make, everything—and Edie wonders if their now-adult children left the house as quickly as humanly possible to get away from their dreadful parents. The food isn’t great, and they spend most of their time doing chores for the Jameses, and both Edie and Tom are terribly homesick. Luckily during the week they can go to school, but at school the other kids bully Tom, which gets back to the teacher who pins it on the “London brats” making trouble, which gets back to Mrs. James, who sends them both to bed with no supper. So nothing about this is going well.
Then Tom gets sick, and the Jameses pretty well accuse him of being a lazy malingerer. They try to hide a letter from their parents, they continue to berate them on the regular, and the last straw comes when Mr. James is trying to teach Tom some woodworking. Tom misses, hits his thumb with a hammer, and curses, which Edie (and frankly, I) feel is completely reasonable. (It’s true. Who are these people who control themselves when they hit themselves with a hammer? When I hit my thumb with a hammer you can hear me for blocks.) So they quite literally wash his mouth out with soap, and Edie is like come on, this is completely unreasonable, and starts to make plans for a secret return home.
So Edie does a little spy work to figure out when the trains run, and they tell the Jameses they’re just going to go to school a few minutes early, but pop onto the train instead. Edie is completely paranoid the whole way—that the train will be cancelled, police will come and haul them back, they won’t make their connecting train, you name it. But they make it home all in one piece, and their mother is so surprised and happy to see them that she isn’t upset after hearing their story.
Edie’s father has been called to a number of terrible fires all over the area as the result of bombing, and he’s very shaken by all he sees. He’s on the site when the Germans drop an oil bomb on a primary school and has to help drag burning children out of a building, which is just about one of the most horrible things I can imagine. No wonder he’s traumatized. They’re all feeling a bit better when Frank gets leave to come and visit them for Christmas, but then he informs them that he’s going to train as a pilot instead of remaining on ground crew. God, things are not shaping up well for these poor people.
But as it turns out Frank doesn’t ever get the chance to train as a pilot. He’s killed when a petrol tank is hit by a bomb at his base. After that Edie stops keeping her diary, and writes a final entry in April after their house is destroyed in a raid. This book, unlike most My Story novels, has a brief postscript—in it, Shirley moves in with a friend from work, and the rest of the family crowds together in a small flat that the fire department finds for them. After the war Edie’s father is invalided out of the fire service due to all the smoke inhalation he suffered, but her mother takes on a job with the Lewisham city council as the breadwinner instead. Shirley marries a nice man, Maureen aims to make a career out of her work, and Tom manages to get his first job as well. Edie’s only goal is to finish school and go to university.
Rating: C. See? I don’t know. It’s not bad, it’s just…it’s trying to do a lot of things. It’s trying to be a story about evacuees, but also about the Blitz, and as a result neither are handled well. Let us all remember Ron Swanson’s wise words to whole-ass one thing instead of half-assing two things, which is what happens here. I’d also say it lacks some emotional resonance, as well—although it’s in diary style it lacks a lot of the more emotional strength, which is the biggest thing you can take advantage of in a diary! Overall, I don’t know. This is the book form of the shrug emoji. It’s not bad, and it’s not great, it’s just….there.