Calf love in Canada's wartime wilderness

9th May 1997 at 01:00

Nicholas Tucker on a trilogy about evacuees' experiences to stretch older primary pupils.

Modern adventure stories for children have trouble in getting rid of the parents. Mothers suddenly called away to nurse sick fathers abroad no longer ring true in a world where leaving children on their own is considered a serious offence.

But stories about the evacuation which took place during the Second World War have no problems here. From Nina Bawden's 1973 classic Carrie's War onwards, plucky lone children are shown coping with an unfamiliar environment. When such stories end happily, as they usually do, young readers may then have the pleasure of seeing both parent and foster-parent competing for the love of the child characters who have come through so well.

One group of evacuees not well served by literature are those l5,000 children transported overseas in the early days of the war. Many were privately funded, attracting an envy and resentment not lessened by hearing the piping upper-class accents with which they broadcast radio messages home.

But 1,500 such children were government-sponsored, and Kit Pearson's fine War Guests trilogy tells the imaginary story of two of them: Norah, originally aged nine, and her five-year-old brother Gavin. Neither want to leave their parents and go to Canada, and both experience problems in the comfortable but morally austere home they settle in. Written with sensitivity and a determination to describe things as they were, these books are readable, often moving and totally believable: ideal for upper-primary-age readers.

Norah starts as a fat, plain child making heavy weather of her billet in Toronto with "Aunt" Florence and her middle-aged daughter "Aunt" Mary. Before that, there is the boat journey and Norah's growing realisation that she is expected to look after little Gavin. Too much is expected of Norah, still a child. Friendless at school and neglected at home, she starts wetting the bed. A Christmas radio message from her parents proves too upsetting, and the two children run away on an icy winter night. They return, and from then on Florence treats Norah with more understanding.

Looking at the Moon, set in 1943, shows Norah with new friends and a first experience of calf love with the glamorous older nephew of her adopted Canadian family. He is yet to enlist, and confides to Norah how much he hates the idea of fighting. The nephew eventually falls for someone his own age, leaving Norah bitter and disillusioned. But there are other children to hang around with in a long summer where the entire extended family settle in the Canadian wilderness far from everywhere else - particularly from wartime Britain, memories of which are beginning to fade.

The Lights Go on Again concludes the trilogy by focusing on Gavin. He can hardly remember his parents, so when a telegram arrives with the news that both have been killed by a flying bomb, his reactions are muted. He accepts the offer of adoption from his doting Canadian guardians - but at the last moment decides to accompany Norah back to post-war Britain.

Kit Pearson, born just after 1945, writes accurately as well as compellingly about those now distant times. I can remember joining in the teasing of my fellow pupils who returned from America, Australia and Canada in 1945, mocking their accents while furiously jealous of their stories of recent opulence. This trilogy shows such children as proper victims in their own right, confronting the severe emotional dislocation they suffered.

Children who read them will be thoroughly entertained; they will also learn something about humanity and its capacity both to suffer and eventually to cope.

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