Jessamy

Jessamy by Barbara Sleigh, 1967.

Jessamy is a British orphan who is being raised by her two aunts, Millicent and Maggie. The two aunts aren’t really raising her together, though. Jessamy lives with Aunt Millicent during the school year, and she goes to stay with Aunt Maggie during school holidays. Truth be told, Aunt Millicent (her mother’s sister) and Aunt Maggie (her father’s sister) don’t really like each other, and they have different priorities and goals for Jessamy’s future. Aunt Millicent is doing her best to help Jessamy be pretty and popular, making sure that she wears a retainer to straighten her teeth and only allowing her to associate with “nice” children (apparently meaning ones from “good” families in the sense of social connections, who mostly don’t like Jessamy – Jessamy is usually not allowed to play with the children she actually likes and who like her). On the other hand, Aunt Maggie doesn’t care about beauty or popularity and just wants Jessamy to be well-behaved. Jessamy is confident that she is disappointing both of her aunts in all of these qualities. Her aunts are fond of her, but they are also occupied with their own lives. Aunt Millicent has her work, and Aunt Maggie has two children of her own, so Jessamy really has only half of their attention at any particular time.

However, Jessamy’s usual bouncing between her aunts is interrupted one summer when Aunt Maggie’s children, Jessamy’s older cousins Muriel and Edgar, catch whooping cough. Jessamy hasn’t had whooping cough herself, so she wouldn’t have any immunity. Rather than bring Jessamy into the household and have her end up sick, too, Aunt Maggie realizes that she has to find another place for her to stay until the other children are better. Jessamy can’t go back to Aunt Millicent because Aunt Millicent is leaving on a business trip, so Aunt Maggie arranges for Jessamy to stay with Miss Brindle, who is the caretaker of a large old house known to locals as Posset Place.

Miss Brindle is an older woman and is not used to spending time with children. Although Jessamy doesn’t really get along with her cousins, she isn’t sure if she’s going to like staying with Miss Brindle. However, Miss Brindle isn’t bad. She isn’t fond of Muriel or Edgar, either, and she says right up front that she’s glad that Jessamy seems different from her cousins. She also says that she’s going to treat Jessamy like an adult because she doesn’t know much about children, which suits Jessamy fine.

Miss Brindle tells Jessamy a little about the history of the old house. Posset Place was built in 1885 by a man named Nathaniel Parkinson, who made his money from producing a cough syrup called Parkinson’s Expectorant Posset. The house is largely empty now, except for the housekeeper’s quarters, where Miss Brindle now lives. Miss Brindle spends her time making sure the rooms are kept clean and well-aired.

Miss Brindle lets Jessamy explore the house a little before supper, and in particular, Jessamy is fascinated by the empty nursery. She finds herself imagining the children who used to live there and the toys and books the nursery once held. Then, she notices markings on the wall where the children’s heights were recorded, and she sees that one of the children was also named Jessamy. She tries to ask Miss Brindle about it, but Miss Brindle isn’t aware that there were any names written on the nursery wall.

During the night, Jessamy wakes up, still thinking about seeing her own name written on the wall of the nursery. She could have been mistaken, but it bothers her to the point where she feels like she has to go look at it again. Taking her flashlight, she goes upstairs again to look at the names. However, this time, the nursery is not empty, like it was before. There are clothes hanging on the wooden pegs on the wall and a line of shoes on the floor. When she checks the old measuring marks, she sees that there are fewer marks than she remembered before, but one of the names is definitely Jessamy, and the year next to that name is 1914. Jessamy lives in 1966 (contemporary with when the book was written), but the day in 1914 is the same day that she came to stay with Miss Brindle – July 23rd.

Then, to Jessamy’s surprise, she suddenly realizes that she is holding a lit candle instead of her flashlight. At first, Jessamy thinks that she must be dreaming, but then, an angry young woman comes and tells her that she should be in bed because she’s ill, not running around with a candle. The woman threatens to tell her aunt about this. When the woman lights her lamp, Jessamy sees that the nursery is now fully furnished.

It seems that Jessamy has gone back in time to 1914 and has been mistaken for the Jessamy who lived in the house in the past. The woman, who is Miss Matchett, the parlor maid, says that the other children named in the height markings – Marcus, Fanny, and Kitto – are all asleep and that it’s nearly midnight. The Jessamy of the past is the niece of the cook-housekeeper, which is why she is allowed to be with the children of the house. Jessamy’s head hurts, and she realizes that there is suddenly a bandage around it. Miss Matchett says that she fell out of a mulberry tree.

Jessamy realizes that the housemaid is only awake at this late hour and fully dressed because she had just returned from slipping out of the house secretly. When she points it out, Miss Matchett admits that she sneaked out to see her gentleman friend, and she says that if Jessamy doesn’t tell on her for doing that, she won’t tell her aunt that she was out of bed. Jessamy agrees, and Miss Matchett leads her back to her bed in the housekeeper’s quarters.

When Jessamy wakes up in the morning, she expects to find that everything that happened in the nursery during the night was a dream, but it isn’t. The room is the same one Miss Brindle gave her in the housekeeper’s quarters, but the bed and furnishings of the room are different. Jessamy is woken by a woman she’s never met before, not Miss Brindle.

This woman is the past Jessamy’s aunt, who tells her that she has had approval to stay on as the cook-housekeeper for the Parkinson family with Jessamy living with her. Not every household would accept a housekeeper with a young niece to raise, but as Nathaniel Parkinson himself says, the Parkinsons are not an ordinary family. Nathaniel Parkinson is a self-made man, from a humble background in spite of his current fortune, so he doesn’t put on airs, like other men of his current class. His granddaughter, Miss Cecily, at first disapproves of Jessamy, thinking that she might be too “common” (like the friends Jessamy’s Aunt Millicent disapproves of) and that she might not be a good influence on the children of the house, her younger siblings, who she is helping to raise. However, past Jessamy’s aunt defends her, and Nathaniel Parkinson says that she might actually be good for other children. He thinks Fanny has been acting too fine, and Kit could use the company of another child his age.

Jessamy is happy when she learns that past Jessamy has made friends with the Parkinson children and has really become part of the household. She is told that Fanny still thinks of her as being just the niece of a servant, but Kit (aka Kitto) is her special friend. Jessamy also likes this 1914 aunt better than her 1966 aunts because she seems nicer and more her kind of person. The realization that this is not a dream but that she has really traveled back in time is worrying, but Jessamy tells herself that she will somehow find her way back to her own time and that she should enjoy 1914 as much as she can while she can.

From the housemaid, Sarah, Jessamy learns that the Parkinson children live with their grandfather because their parents were killed in a carriage accident. Miss Cecily, the oldest girl in the family, takes care of her younger siblings and tries to manage the household while her oldest brother is away at Oxford. Miss Cecily is still learning about the running of a household, so past Jessamy’s aunt, Mrs. Rumbold, has to help her.

Jessamy also learns that she fell out of a tree house that she and Kit built together and that Fanny, who was also in the tree house at the time, was particularly upset by her accident. Fanny confesses to Jessamy that the reason she fell was because she pushed her. She hadn’t meant to push her out of the tree house or for her to fall, but the two of them were having an argument at the time. Fanny felt guilty about her getting hurt, but she’s still angry that Jessamy will be staying on at the house. She thinks that her grandfather and older sister decided to let her and her aunt stay partly because they felt badly about her getting hurt. Although Fanny is grateful that Jessamy didn’t tell on her for causing her accident, she still isn’t happy that Jessamy will be living with them. Fanny does put on airs, but she openly admits that she does it because everyone seems to be against her. Girls at school teasingly cough around her all the time because her grandfather made his money with his cough syrup, and since Jesssamy came, she feels like her brothers always side with Jessamy instead of her. Fanny has been in trouble before for bad behavior, and her brothers know that their grandfather has said if she does it again, he’ll send her to boarding school. Jessamy thinks that the idea of boarding school sounds exciting, but her brothers say that Fanny would hate it.

In spite of the drama with Fanny, Jessamy enjoys her time in 1914 and the other people there. She has the feeling that something important happened in 1914, and she remembers what it was when Nathaniel Parkinson and Kit talk about the possibility of war with Germany. Jessamy realizes that the coming war is going to be World War I and that it is going to start soon. Harry, the oldest boy in the Parkinson family, is back from Oxford, and he talks about how exciting it would be to be a soldier if there is a war, but Nathaniel Parkinson isn’t excited, understanding more about the nature of war than his grandchildren. Harry’s grandfather wants him to finish college, but Harry is in debt and wants to take his future into his own hands. Harry runs away, and at the same time, a valuable antique book belonging to his grandfather disappears. Jessamy doesn’t like to think that the pleasant young man stole his grandfather’s book, but what other explanation is there?

Just when Jessamy is getting caught up in the events in the Parkinson household and is concerned about the future of the past Jessamy and her aunt, Jessamy finds herself once again in 1966. Is it still possible for her to return to 1914 or learn what happened to the people she’s grown so fond of? Jessamy also begins to wonder who is the current owner of this old house and Mrs. Brindle’s employer? Learning the answers to those questions also explains a few things about Jessamy’s own family and past and gives her the one thing she really wants most.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

My Reaction and Spoilers

This story is a combination of fantasy and mystery, a combination that I always like. In some ways, this story reminds me of Charlotte Sometimes because the time switching takes place between similar eras, but there are some notable differences between the two books. Charlotte Sometimes took place at a boarding school, and Charlotte went back in time to the end of WWI, not the beginning. There was also no mystery plot in Charlotte Sometimes beyond Charlotte trying to figure out how and why she is switching places with a girl in the past. Also, in Charlotte Sometimes, it isn’t clear whether Charlotte influenced or changed anything in the past, but Jessamy definitely does. The modern Jessamy had to be the one to solve the mystery because she has access to information that the past Jessamy didn’t have.

In the past, Jessamy begins investigating the mysterious theft of the valuable book. Although she knows that Harry isn’t the type to steal from his grandfather, it takes a second visit back in time for her to discover who the real thief is and to clear Harry’s name. Unfortunately, she is unable to actually find the stolen book in the past to return it to its first owner. It is through a new friend that she makes in 1966 that she learns what really happened to the book and is able to return it to the current owner of the house … an old friend of hers from 1914.

Along the way, Jessamy also learns a few things about the history of her own family. She realizes at the beginning of the story that Jessamy is an unusual name, which is why she is surprised that the girl in the past is also called Jessamy. It turns out that Jessamy is a name that is passed down through her family. She is not a direct descendant of the past Jessamy, as I first suspected, but the past Jessamy is a relative of hers. She also comes to understand that her family used to be more grand, but during the past, they fell on hard times. This is also important to the story because class differences figure into the plot.

Everyone in 1914 is concerned about class differences, but in different ways. Nathaniel Parkinson is actually the least concerned with class because he has actually shifted to a higher class during his lifetime, making him aware that people from different classes are really just people, only in different circumstances. His granddaughters are more class conscious, although both of them also soften on that after getting to know Jessamy better. Even the servants are also class conscious, with some of the servants putting on airs because they’re above other types of servants.

Something that surprised me in the story is the realization, toward the end of the book, that class differences are partly the reason why Aunt Millicent and Aunt Maggie don’t get along. Aunt Millicent’s efforts to make Jessamy more pretty and popular and have her be friends with certain people are social-climbing efforts, partly because Aunt Millicent is aware of their family’s past and wants the family to climb up from their humbled circumstances. Aunt Maggie’s disapproval of Aunt Millicent seems to come somewhat from her disapproval of Millicent’s efforts at social-climbing or trying to act like she’s more grand than she actually is. It isn’t stated explicitly, but it is heavily implied. We don’t meet Millicent in the book, but from her description, I suspect that she disapproves of Aunt Maggie because she thinks of her as being too “common.” From the characters’ descriptions of Maggie’s children, it seems like people who don’t like them think of them as being “common” or uncreative, indicating that this branch of Jessamy’s family is rather prosaic, being typical in a rather dull way.

The objective reality is probably that Jessamy’s two aunts are not very far apart in their social status, but they have different attitudes toward their social status. Aunt Maggie doesn’t care much about it. She fits in well where she is, she doesn’t care about moving up in society, and she just focuses on the children behaving well within their social status. Aunt Millicent, however, has a high opinion of who she is and where the family ought to be in society, and she is focused on moving up. Jessamy doesn’t really fit with either of her aunts’ philosophies of life. What she really wants is the chance to make real friends and fit in somewhere with people who like her and who like the sort of things she likes. She gets the opportunity at the end of the story when the current owner of the old house becomes her benefactor and arranges for her to attend boarding school, which she has said is something that she’s always wanted to do. At boarding school, Jessamy will be out from under the direct supervision of both of her aunts and will have the opportunity to develop independently and make new friends who suit her, rather than her aunts.

Even Fanny finds boarding school beneficial. We don’t know exactly how her life ended up in the 1960s, but when Fanny realizes that she’s caused problems for the past Jessamy in more ways than one and that she needs to admit the truth to her grandfather and older sister, her character develops for the better. She begins to develop empathy and compassion for the past Jessamy, looking beyond feeling sorry for herself to feeling something for another person she has directly harmed, and she reforms her character. She accepts the consequences for her actions, even though she was afraid to do so before, and it leads her to better things because the consequences are not as bad as she thought and actually help her. Although she was initially afraid of being sent away from her family, when her grandfather decides that she needs the discipline and sends her to boarding school, she discovers that she actually likes it. Going to boarding school allows her to get away from the girls who were bullying her at her local school and make new friends, and she develops some self-confidence from the experience, turning into a young lady who helps her older sister in her volunteer work for the war effort.

One final thought I had is that every time I’ve ever read a book with a sickness like whooping cough in it, I feel like it really dates the book. I know this book does have a specific date by design, and I know people still catch whooping cough in the 21st century if they haven’t been vaccinated (get your tetanus shot – in the US, the tetanus shot includes the whooping cough vaccine), but to me, this type of illness feels like a time travel back to my parents’ youths by itself. My parents and their siblings had whooping cough when they were young, but I’m almost 40 years old and have never seen a case of it myself.

Carrie’s War

Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, 1973.

The story begins with an adult Carrie reflecting on her youth during World War II, taking her children to see the place where she stayed as a child evacuee and remembering an incident that has haunted her for the last 30 years. Adult Carrie is a widow who was married to an archaeologist who died only a few months before the story begins. In some ways, Carrie says that her husband was very much like a boy she used to know during the war, Albert Sandwich. The family trip and Carrie’s memories take them back to a small mining town in Wales and an old house called Druid’s Bottom, now a ruin, that used to house a mysterious skull … and what Carrie regards as the worst mistake of her life. Although adult Carrie knows that, logically, what happened couldn’t have really been her fault, there are some things in life that are difficult to prove or disprove, and she’s always blamed herself for what happened.

When Carrie Willow was eleven years old, she and her younger brother, Nick, were evacuated from London along with other children to avoid the bombings. All of the children were told to report to their schools with a packed lunch and a change of clothes, and none of them had any idea where they would be taken after that, only that their parents wouldn’t be going with them. Their mother tried to frame it all as a great adventure that they would enjoy, but the children were understandably worried. They had to wear labels on their clothes with their names on them, and they had to carry gas masks, which is never a reassuring thing to be told you might need. (Young Carrie thinks to herself that her mother is such an optimist that, if they found themselves in Hell, she’d look on the bright side and say, “Well, at least we’ll be warm.”)

The children’s teacher takes them aboard a train, and they head off into the countryside, ending up at a coal-mining town in Wales that doesn’t look like much. That’s where Carrie meets Albert, another boy who rode with them on the train. Albert is tall and serious and wears glasses. His first concern is that the town isn’t big enough to support a proper library. Carrie is mostly concerned about keeping her brother with her and making sure that someone will be willing to take them both together. (Hosts for WWII evacuees were told how many children they were expected to take in, but they were given the opportunity to choose which ones they would host from among the children available. Sometimes, siblings were split up if they couldn’t find accommodations that could house them together.)

Carrie and Nick are eventually chosen by Miss Evans, a woman who lives with her brother. Originally, Miss Evans had been hoping for two girls so they can share the one spare room that she and her brother have, but Carrie persuades her that she and Nick sometimes share a room at home because he has bad dreams. Miss Evans is a shy and nervous woman, and her brother, Samuel Evans, is ultra-strict and fussy. Everything in their house is super neat, and they have special rules to keep it that way. Carrie and Nick aren’t even accustomed to picking up after themselves because their family has a maid who does all the cleaning. The house has a bathroom with running hot and cold water, but if they have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the day, Mr. Evans wants them to use the outdoor one in the yard to avoid messing up the new carpet on the stairs with too much “traipsing” up and down. Even Miss Evans uses the outdoor bathroom, although Samuel Evans never does because he thinks it’s unseemly because of his position in the community as a store owner and town Councillor. So, for starters, Mr. Evans makes strict rules for others to follow that he doesn’t follow himself.

Carrie can tell right from the first that Samuel Evans is a bully who pushes people around, especially his sister. He’s much older than his sister and helped to raise her after their parents died. Really, Miss Evans was raised with Mr. Evans’s son, Frederick, who is now in the army, being more like her brother than her nephew. Now that Mr. Evans’s wife is dead, there’s no one else in the household but the two of them. When Miss Evans and Frederick were young, Mr. Evans used fear, intimidation, and harsh physical punishment to keep them in line. However, Mr. Evans can’t really bully the children because Carrie is careful not to show that she finds him intimidating, and Nick just isn’t intimidated because he refuses to be impressed by anybody with false teeth. Still, Carrie realizes that they should try to keep out of his way and not make him angry.

Samuel Evans is also very strict about religion. One day, when Nick eats some biscuits in his shop, Mr. Evans declares that he’s been stealing and that he’s going to get the strap for it. Carrie is horrified because their parents don’t use physical punishment, and Nick is terrified. Miss Evans is too afraid to intervene, so Carrie steps in and defends Nick, just saying that he didn’t understand that it was stealing to eat the biscuits. Mr. Evans says that’s not a good excuse, but Nick says that if he whips him, he’ll go to school and tell the teacher that Mr. Evans beat him for taking food because he was hungry. Mr. Evans realizes that, while other adults might not fault him for punishing a thief, they would if it looked like he was starving and neglecting his charges as well as beating them. Instead of giving Nick a beating, he prays out loud for Nick to turn from his “evil ways.” It’s difficult for Carrie to listen to because she realizes that Nick hasn’t been starved, wasn’t really hungry, and should have known better than to take the biscuits, and now, he’s made an enemy of Mr. Evans. They don’t have much choice other than staying in the Evans house because they can’t go back to their parents yet, and there just aren’t any other places in town for them to stay. The kids become fond of Miss Evans, who they start calling “Auntie Lou”, but they always have to be wary of Mr. Evans.

When their mother comes to visit, Mr. Evans acts extra nice to the children and tries to be charming to their mother. The children’s mother has some misgivings about how the children are being treated, but the children don’t complain about some of the harder aspects of living with Mr. Evans because they don’t want their mother to worry. She’s been working as an ambulance driver in Glasgow because her husband’s ship makes port there, and she can see him sometimes. She needs to know that her children are safely settled somewhere to continue her work, and the children have also grown attached to Auntie Lou and don’t want her to get into trouble, even if they don’t like Mr. Evans.

Shortly before Christmas, Auntie Lou explains to the children that she and Mr. Evans have an older sister named Dilys, and she’s giving them a goose for Christmas dinner. The reason why the children haven’t met Dilys before is that Auntie Lou and Mr. Evans don’t really get along with her and hardly ever see her. Mr. Evans in particular resents Dilys because, years ago, she married into the Gotobed family. The Gotobeds owned the mine nearby where their father was killed in an accident. Mr. Evans always blamed the Gotobeds for their father’s death because they didn’t have adequate safety measures, and he felt like Dilys was turning her back on the family by marrying Mr. Gotobed’s son. Now, Dilys is a widow, and she’s not in very good health, which is another reason why she doesn’t get out much. She lives in the old house known as Druid’s Bottom, at the bottom of Druid’s Grove, where the yew trees grow. A woman named Hepzibah Green looks after her and the farm where they raise poultry. Local people are rather superstitious about Druid’s Grove, but Carrie thinks it sounds wonderfully spooky and exciting. Auntie Lou and Mr. Evans send Carrie and Nick to Druid’s Bottom to pick up their Christmas goose from Hepzibah Green because Auntie Lou gets sick and can’t go herself.

On the way to Druid’s Bottom, Carrie and Nick are scared because they think they hear something chasing them, making odd sounds. It turns out that it’s only Mister Johnny, a cousin of Mr. Gotobed, Dilys’s deceased husband. Mister Johnny has developmental disabilities and can’t talk very well or understandably to most people, which is why he lives with Dilys in Druid’s Bottom and is cared for by Hepzibah. Hepzibah has been Johnny’s nurse since he was a baby, and she now cares for the elderly and ill Dilys as well.

Albert Sandwich has been staying at Druid’s Bottom, also in Hepzibah’s care, since Carrie and Nick last saw him. Albert tells them that Hepzibah is a kind of witch who knows some kind of healing magic. Albert hasn’t been to school with the other children because he was very sick after they last saw him, and Albert thinks that he only survived because Hepzibah gave him herbal medicines. Albert loves Druid’s Bottom because of Hepzibah and also because the old house has an impressive library. In the library, Albert also shows Carrie a strange curiosity – an old skull. The story surrounding this skull is that it’s the skull of an African slave boy who was brought to this house years ago. (Albert explains to Carrie that he doesn’t believe that because he’s examined the skull. He explains that the number of teeth suggest that the skull was from an adult, not a boy, and the size and shape suggest that it’s the skull of a woman. Albert suspects that some local person actually found the skull at the site of an Iron Age settlement nearby.) According to the legend of this skull (or what people say the legend is), the young slave boy died of a fever, and on his deathbed, told the Gotobed family that they must keep his skull in the house or the walls would fall. Hepzibah says that one of the Gotobeds’ ancestors tried removing the skull from the house once, and during the night, all the crockery in the kitchen broke and the mirrors in the house cracked for no apparent reason. When they brought the skull back into the house, they didn’t have any further problems. Albert is skeptical of this story, but it’s captivating for Carrie.

Carrie finally meets Dilys Gotobed one day when everyone else is busy and Hepzibah asks her to take tea up to Mrs. Gotobed. Dilys is a sad and weak old woman who doesn’t have much time left to live. She lives mostly in her memories, spending each day wearing the fancy ball gowns that her husband bought for her years ago one last time before she dies. All of her talk of death gives Carrie the creeps, but Dilys makes her promise to take a message to her brother after she dies. She insists that the message must be delivered only after her death because it’s sure to make Mr. Evans angry and Dilys isn’t up to dealing with his anger. The message is somewhat cryptic. Basically, Mrs. Gotobed wants Mr. Evans to know that she hasn’t forgotten him and she remembers that they’re still brother and sister, but she feels like she owes more to others than she does to family. Dilys has done something that is sure to make Mr. Evans angry, but she wants him to know that she did it only because she thought it was the right thing to do and not just to spite Mr. Evans. Carrie reluctantly agrees to deliver the message after Dilys is dead.

The meaning of the message becomes clear when Dilys finally does die. Dilys’s only relatives are Mr. Evans and Auntie Lou, but she wanted to provide for Hepzibah and Johnny because of their companionship over the years. At first, Carrie thinks that Mr. Evans will be reassured that his sister thought of him near the end, but Carrie hasn’t fully grasped Mr. Evans’s reactions. Mr. Evans flies into a rage at the suggestion that Hepzibah might inherit from Dilys instead of him. He storms over to Druid’s Bottom to search for a copy of Dilys’s will to establish who is going to inherit. Mr. Evans later says that he couldn’t find one, and even Dilys’s lawyer says that Dilys’s didn’t make a will or leave one with him. If that’s true, and there is no will, Dilys’s estate would go to her nearest relatives, which basically means Mr. Evans. But, is that the truth?

While Dilys may have meant to provide for Hepzibah and Johnny, she was so ill near the end of her life that she may have forgotten about making a will. Her mind wasn’t entirely there, so she may have thought that she’d already done it when she hadn’t. However, there is another explanation. What if Mr. Evans did find something in writing from Dilys about her last wishes for her estate? What if he stole or destroyed Dilys’s will or something she left behind? That’s what Albert believes. He’s ready to believe the worst about Mr. Evans because he is unquestionably a mean, bitter, and vindictive man, but Carrie still has trouble believing that Mr. Evans could do something so deliberately evil. Albert somewhat blames Carrie for delivering the message Mrs. Gotobed gave her for Mr. Evans, alerting him to the possibility that there might be another heir to the estate, depleted though that estate is. Carrie was only doing as Mrs. Gotobed asked as one of her final wishes, but Carrie does feel responsible, especially if Mr. Evans did what Albert suspects.

In the midst of Carrie’s guilt that Mrs. Gotobed’s wishes are not being honored and her anger at Mr. Evans for wanting the house all to himself and kicking out Hepzibah and Johnny, Carrie decides that there’s only one thing left to do in order to make sure that Mr. Evans never takes possession of the house. It’s a terrible, impulsive decision, and it’s only after she’s done it that Carrie realizes that she also may have misjudged the situation yet again. It’s also only when she returns to Druid’s Bottom as an adult that she comes to see the full truth of the situation and that what she’s done may not have been as bad as she thinks.

This book is very well-known, and it was made into a television mini series in 1974 (you can sometimes find clips or episodes on YouTube) and a movie in 2004. The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

My Reaction and Spoilers

I saw the 2004 movie before I read the book. The movie follows the book very well, and after I looked up the television mini series, I decided that it also follows the book well. The section in the back of the book about the author explains that Nina Bawden was also a child evacuee from London during World War II, so the book was partly inspired by her experiences.

In real life, when children were evacuated from London to be safe from the bombings during World War II, they went through some of the same feelings of homesickness and unfamiliarity that the children in this story also go through. First, they’re worried about being far from home. They don’t even know where they’re going and who they’re going to be staying with when they get there. During the scene where they’re being selected by foster families, they worry about who will choose them and what will happen to them if no one wants them. It’s all very realistic, and people who were among the child evacuees of the time describe going through a similar process.

There’s also the adjustment that the children have to make living in a household with unfamiliar people and different rules and circumstances from what they’re used to in London. London at the time was a large cosmopolitan area, like it is today, but back in the 1940s, small towns and houses in the countryside had far fewer amenities than in modern times. Real life child evacuees were accustomed to indoor plumbing in London, but they didn’t always find that in the places where they had to stay during the evacuation. The characters in the story find a mixture where they’re staying. The fussy head of the Evans household has indoor plumbing, but he doesn’t allow everyone to use it during the day because he doesn’t want everyone constantly going up and down his wonderful carpet on the stairs, so they also have to use the outdoor privy.

Mr. Evans’s fussiness and anger issues are also, sadly, true to life. The real life evacuees came from a variety of backgrounds and were accustomed to different styles of home and family life, and what they encountered in their foster homes during evacuation could be wildly different from the life they had at home, both for better or for worse. Some foster families could be warm and welcoming to the child evacuees, but sadly, many were not, resenting the new obligations that had been thrust on them because of the war. (Households were told that they had to accept evacuees if they had room for them, and there was no option to refuse.) There were foster families who ended up keeping or adopting children they took in during the war because they were orphaned or abandoned by their parents by the time the war ended. Some children ended up drawing closer to their foster families than their birth families because they came from an unhappy home life in the beginning, and they found themselves liking the new life they found. Others had a very unhappy experience, feeling unwanted, unwelcome, or even abused by their temporary foster families. Unhappy children could try to reunite with their parents, transfer to a different household, or even just run away, and some did all of these things. (To hear about the experiences of real life evacuees in their own words, listen to this documentary or this interview series on YouTube.)

In the story, Carrie and Nick seem to come from a happy home life with close-knit family. Their family is not poor because they could afford a nice house with a maid, and their parents seem kind and understanding and do not use physical punishment of any kind with the children. The Evans household is a step down for them. The fact that Mr. Evans, as a shopkeeper, doesn’t seem to have as much money as their family did when they lived in London isn’t so much of a problem as Mr. Evans’s personal issues and bullying nature. Mr. Evans is a troubled person, twisted by anger and resentment, and rather than dealing with these issues himself, he takes them out on other people, even people who are not the source of his anger and resentment.

As the story unfolds, the children learn about Mr. Evans’s sad history with his older sister, Dilys. He and Dilys were once rather close, but their relationship unraveled when she married Mr. Gotobed, the son of the man who owned the mine where their father was killed in an accident. Not only did it seem like a betrayal, to marry into the family of the man Mr. Evans blamed for their father’s death, but Dilys also suddenly became a wealthy woman by marrying into a wealthy family, while the rest of her family was still poor working class. There were apparently even times when Dilys rubbed it in, making the situation worse. Mr. Evans had to work his way up from the son of a miner to becoming the local shopkeeper and a prominent member of the community, and even then, he’s still not as well-off as his sister, who simply married into money and has never had to work herself. Instead of just taking pride in his achievements, Mr. Evans can’t get over the injustice of his relative position with his sister, that she has it all easy, and he’s had to work and scrimp for everything he has. That’s why’s he’s ultra-protective of things he owns, like the biscuits in the shop or the new carpet on the stairs, and why he’s so controlling of the people in his life. In spite of his accomplishments, he feels “small” next to his sister who married wealth and always has more than he has. He’s constantly trying to assert his authority to avoid feeling “small”, but it never really works because he can’t change who his sister married, he’s never going to be rich, and he can’t internalize the idea that he can still be somebody worthwhile even if he’s not the guy who has the most money and power. He’s tied his sense of self-worth to what he has and the amount of control he has over everyone, so he can’t give up any part of it. He’s had all of these resentments for so many years that they’ve all been brewing inside him and explode out whenever any little thing in his tightly-controlled world goes wrong or he thinks he stands to lose something he regards as his. This life hasn’t been healthy for his younger sister, Auntie Lou, who has lived with Mr. Evans and his controlling nature and temper tantrums since she was young, and it’s not really healthy for Carrie and Nick, either.

Carrie becomes sympathetic to Mr. Evans, although Nick can’t understand why, because she sees the sadness and loneliness at the core of his bad behavior. Carrie is a very sympathetic/empathetic person, but one of the questions of this story is how far should someone go with sympathy/empathy when they’re dealing with a person who is causing harm to people around him. Mr. Evans is a toxic person. He is causing harm to others, and before the story is over, Auntie Lou runs away from the house to marry an American soldier she met, leaving her brother to live alone. By this point, the children know that they won’t be living with Mr. Evans much longer because their mother has sent for them to join her in Glasgow because she’s found a place for them to all live together. Carrie and Nick won’t be living with Mr. Evans or facing his temper problems, stinginess, or selfishness anymore. Carrie feels sorry for for Mr. Evans, an aging man who is now left alone. His only other living relative, his son, has already said that he isn’t planning to come back and run his father’s store after the war, although Mr. Evans doesn’t know it yet, so he’s going to be even more alone than he knows. Carrie sees the sadness of Mr. Evans’s situation and feels badly for him, even though at least part of this situation is his own making. However, Nick and Albert don’t like Carrie’s sympathy for Mr. Evans because her attempts to reach him emotionally put everyone else in a vulnerable position to Mr. Evans’s wrath because he’s never as sympathetic, understanding, or rational as Carrie expects him to be.

When the question arises of whether or not Mr. Evans could have stolen or destroyed Dilys’s will in order to get her house and get rid of Hepzibah and Johnny, Albert is prepared to believe that he did. He is a vindictive man, driven by his bitterness, and does not always behave rationally. Nick says he sometimes cheats his customers in petty ways, like giving them 97 saccharine tablets instead of the full 100 he owes them, but other times, he has Carrie give someone the correct change when she’s made a mistake. Sometimes, he extends extra credit or provides free groceries for people in need. Mr. Evans is definitely flawed, but he does still seem to have a system of ethics. Would he really commit a crime, like inheritance fraud?

For all of her sympathy for the sad Mr. Evans, Carrie doesn’t really understand him. For much of the story, she expects him to react to situations as she would and thinks that she can reach him through her own kindness and understanding. By the end of the story, she is partially successful, and she ends up getting to know him better than other characters do, but at the same time, she can’t control Mr. Evans, and it must be acknowledged that Mr. Evans doesn’t control himself. He has a long-standing habit of lashing out at other people that he doesn’t fully confront until he finds himself completely alone with no one else to lash out at but himself. As hard as Mr. Evans works at his professional life, his personal life is a mess because of the way he’s treated the people who should have been close to him, and Carrie can’t solve that for him. While Mr. Evans recognizes the kindness and sympathy that Carrie offers him and becomes fond of her for it, she’s still a child, and Mr. Evans is an adult who has control issues and temper tantrums and long-standing personal issues that have gone unaddressed for far too long. Perhaps Mr. Evans realizes that toward the end, partly through Carrie’s kindness, but it’s hard to say because he’s been wrapped up in feeling resentful and sorry for himself for so long.

Apparently, Mr. Evans wasn’t lying when he said that his sister didn’t leave a will. During a rare moment of candor, Mr. Evans reveals to Carrie that he was deeply hurt when Dilys didn’t even leave him a note or letter on her death. All he found in her jewelry box when she died was a single envelope with his name on it, and all it contained was an old photograph and a ring that he had bought for her as a present years before, when they were still close. Carrie thinks that it’s a hopeful sign, that Dilys remembered how much the present meant to both of them and how much it reminded them of better times, but Mr. Evans says that there wasn’t even a word of farewell with it. This candid moment reassures Carrie that Mr. Evans didn’t find a will and steal it, and more than just being greedy for the property, he is feeling hurt and abandoned by the final loss of his sister and the relationship they once had. What he really craved in the end, more than authority, control, money, or property, was a genuine connection with his sister that he realized he would never have again.

It’s sad, and much of it is still Mr. Evans’s fault, although Dilys also deserves some of the blame because there were times when she rubbed salt into Mr. Evans’s wounds by flaunting the difference in their wealth and social status. A death can make people rethink the relationships they had with other people, but those relationships were forged and maintained (or not) when the person was alive. Death can’t change the way people lived when they had the chance. Mr. Evans and Dilys both had chances to fix things between the two of them in the years leading up to the end, and they never took them. Not only that, but Mr. Evans’s bitter feelings and vindictiveness also poisoned the other relationships in his life. So, in the end, it seems that Mr. Evans isn’t evil, even though he can’t really be called “good”, either. Mr. Evans isn’t out to steal his sister’s estate. If he had found a will and an explanation from his sister, he probably would have honored it, even though it would have hurt to do so. What hurts him the most is not finding anything, only the ring, probably because Dilys wasn’t really in her right mind toward the end and couldn’t get her thoughts together well enough to leave anything in writing, which is why she asked Carrie to talk to her brother instead. There also isn’t as much money connected with the estate as there once was. Since Dilys’s husband died, Dilys hasn’t had any income, she hasn’t been able to keep the house up or retain a staff other than Hepzibah, and she has very little money left. She was living in prideful, genteel poverty while Mr. Evans was feeling resentful of what he thought she still had. In the end, Mr. Evans was the victim of his own pride and bad relationships.

The worst mistake that Carrie ever made in her life was trying to sabotage Mr. Evans’s attempt to take the house away from Hepzibah and Johnny by removing the skull from the house. Caught up in the stories about the skull and its supposed curse that would destroy the house if it was ever removed from the house, Carrie comes to believe that the stories are true and decides to use the legend of the skull to destroy the house and keep it out of Mr. Evans’s hands since he won’t let Hepzibah and Johnny live there. As Carrie and Nick leave Wales, they see that the house is on fire from the train, and Carrie comes to believe that the fire was her fault because of the skull. For years, she believes that Hepzibah, Johnny, and Albert were killed in the fire and blames herself for their deaths. But, again, Carrie still doesn’t understand the full situation.

So, does Carrie end up changing anything for Mr. Evans? I think she touched his heart a bit because she cared about him in ways few other people did (mostly because Mr. Evans himself didn’t have much caring for other people), but as far as Mr. Evans’s life and behavior goes, it’s hard to say whether she would have had any long term effect because (spoiler), she later learns that he died not too long after she and her brother left Wales to rejoin their mother in Scotland. He was under stress when Carrie last saw him, full of unresolved grief and anger at Dilys’s death and feeling abandoned by Lou because of her elopement. Then, while he was in the midst of taking control of what was left of his sister’s estate, Dilys’s house caught fire and burned, and then, Mr. Evans received word that his son was killed during the war. The shock of it all was too much for him, and he had a heart attack and died. Sad as that is, Mr. Evans’s death ends up changing things for the better for Hepzibah, Johnny, and Albert.

In spite of her sense of guilt, Carrie does grow up, get married, and have children. The return to Wales with her children when she’s an adult leads her to confront the past and her feelings about it, but it also reveals the truth (also a spoiler): Hepzibah, Johnny, and Albert are all still alive. The house was damaged by the fire but not completely destroyed. In fact, not only were Hepzibah and Johnny allowed to stay on the property after Mr. Evans died, but Albert has saved up enough money to buy the property and restore it. Albert has never married, and there are hints that he might marry the widowed Carrie and become her children’s new stepfather.

Stepping on the Cracks

Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn, 1991.

This is the first book in the Gordy Smith series, although the book really focuses on a girl named Margaret. Gordy Smith is the neighborhood bully and her nemesis. The series shifts to focus more on Gordy after the full story behind his awful behavior is revealed. This story begins in August 1944 because, although they don’t mention the year, the characters talk about seeing the story about the Liberation of Paris in Life Magazine.

Eleven-year-old Margaret and her best friend, Elizabeth, both have brothers who are fighting in World War II. Margaret’s brother is in the army in Europe, and Elizabeth’s brother is in the navy in the Pacific. The two girls have their own special ritual of stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk to “break Hitler’s back”, in a twist on the old stepping on a crack childhood superstition. Margaret knows that the war is Hitler’s fault, and she blames him personally for her brother, Jimmy, having to go away and fight and for the changes in her household since then. Since the war started and her brother went away, Margaret’s father has been very grim, and she knows that her mother sometimes cries when she thinks that Margaret can’t hear her. Her parents are happiest when they imagine what life will be like when the war finally ends. Margaret keeps a scrapbook of letters Jimmy has written to her and war-related news clippings and cartoons that she’s saved that remind her of things her brother has told her about his time in the army. Margaret hates Hitler and the Nazis with a vengeance.

At the same time, Margaret thinks about how odd it is that the war doesn’t seem entirely real. She knows that people in her community have already been killed in the war overseas, and her parents are worried about Jimmy. However, apart from the missing people in the community, like Jimmy, and the stars in people’s windows to signify people who are in the armed forces or who have been killed in battle, there are few outward signs that there is a war happening. They hear about battles, but their own town of College Hill, Maryland, is peaceful. There are some shortages of things because of war rationing, but otherwise, Margaret’s life has been continuing very much as before. She’s seen pictures of starving children in war zones, and she sometimes wonders why they suffer so much, and she doesn’t.

A neighborhood bully, Gordy Smith, gives the girls trouble, and Margaret thinks of him has being like a Nazi because he’s so mean. He calls Margaret and Elizabeth “Baby Magpie” and “Lizard”, pulls their hair, and gets his friends to gang up on them. At one point, he tries to force Elizabeth to kiss him. (One of those weirdos who are clearly interested in girls but have no idea how to be charming to girls.) Gordy brags about his brother in the army, saying that his brother has killed more Nazis than the girls’ brothers and that he’s going to join the army and kill Hitler when he’s older.

Margaret tells her mother about Gordy and says that she hates his guts. However, her mother tells her that young ladies shouldn’t say words like “guts” and that she should have some sympathy for Gordy because of the kind of family he lives in and what his father is like. (Personally, I don’t think sympathy alone is what’s called for to fix Gordy’s problems, but more about that later.) Elizabeth’s father is a policeman and has arrested Gordy’s father more than once for being drunk and disorderly. People in the community think of the Smith family as being “poor white trash” and wish they would move away. The other kids in the family are as nasty and troublesome as Gordy. Margaret doesn’t think Gordy’s family circumstances should excuse his awful behavior and still hates him.

One day in late summer, before school starts, Gordy and his two friends chase the girls out of the treehouse they built. They steal the comic books they like from the girls and rip up the ones they don’t like, tossing them from the top on the tree on top of the girls. Then, they start ripping up the boards from the platform in the tree so they can use them themselves, saying that girls can’t build anything well. It takes much less time and effort for them to destroy what the girls built than it did for the girls to build it. (This is always true of any kind of destruction, so that doesn’t mean anything complimentary about the destroyers, especially if they aren’t smart enough to realize that and think they’ve got some kind of special talent that’s better than building abilities – just saying because it’s true. All this stuff from the boys is just bluster and gaslighting to intimidate the girls into letting them have what they want by implying that they never deserved the things they actually owned and built themselves.) Margaret yells for help from her mother, but her mother doesn’t hear her. Elizabeth tells the boys that their act of sabotage makes them traitors and worse than Nazis, but they laugh it off.

Elizabeth tells Margaret that they’ll get even with Gordy and the other boys for this, but Margaret can’t imagine what they could do. She would rather stay away from Gordy. That’s easier said than done because Gordy steals the next set of boards the girls try to use to rebuild their tree house, too. One day, the girls see the boys going into the woods. They know that the boys have built a hut to use as a clubhouse with the boards they’ve stolen from the girls, and Elizabeth suggests that they follow the boys to find out where their hut is. Elizabeth thinks that it would be great revenge to find their hut, take it apart, and reclaim the stolen boards. After all, they have a right to their own boards. Margaret is more hesitant because they’re not supposed to cross the train tracks into the woods, and the woods are lonely. The boys have air rifles, and if the boys caught the girls trying to take back the boards, they could do all sorts of horrible things to them with no one around to save them. However, Elizabeth impulsively dashes off into the woods, and Margaret feels like she has no choice but to go with her.

The boys catch the girls spying on them at their hideout when Margaret accidentally sneezes. At first, Margaret is sure that the boys are going to kill them when they catch them. Instead, Gordy tries to scare the girls with a story about how he and his friends have actually saved the girls from the crazy man who lives in the woods. There’s an experimental farm near the woods used by the agricultural department at the local university, and Gordy spins a story about how the army was using the farm for an experiment on soldiers, using chemicals to try to make them stronger and braver. Gordy insists that the man they used in the experiment went crazy and broke out of the farm and has been hiding in the woods ever since, ready to attack anybody who finds him. Elizabeth says the story is a fake because she never heard anyone else say that, but Gordy insists that he saw the crazy man standing behind the girls with a knife. Gordy tells the girls that they better stay out of the woods or the crazy man might get them next time.

Elizabeth knows that Gordy must be lying, but Margaret is sure that the story must be true when she sees a wild-looking man with shaggy hair behind the boys in the woods. Margaret screams and runs for home with Elizabeth behind her. Unfortunately, Elizabeth didn’t see the wild-looking man herself. She thinks that Margaret was just being a chicken, falling for Gordy’s story and imagining that she saw something, and she teases Margaret about it. Margaret asks her mother about the experimental farm and Gordy’s story, without admitting that she was in the woods, and her mother says that it’s nonsense, that the farm is only used for agriculture. Her mother thinks that, if there is a strange man in the woods, it’s probably just some old tramp.

It does seem like a logical explanation, that maybe there was just some old tramp hanging around the woods who didn’t know that Gordy was going to tell some wild story about a murderous crazy man and just happened to wander by at the right moment to look scary. However, Margaret just can’t convince herself that’s all there is to it.

When the girls finally get up the nerve to go back to the boys’ hut, there are unmistakable signs that someone has been living there. There is also a knife, like the one Gordy said the crazy man had. Who is staying in the boys’ hut, and what are the boys really hiding?

My Reaction and Spoilers

I mostly think of Mary Downing Hahn for her ghost stories, like Wait Till Helen Comes and The Doll in the Garden, but this was actually the first book that I ever read by this author. I think I read it when I was in elementary or middle school. Because of some of the serious subjects of the book and some of the language used, this isn’t a book for young kids. It’s probably best for middle school.

America in the 1940s

This book is a realistic portrayal of life on the American home front during the war. I enjoyed the mentions of little things that were common in 1940s America, like the popular radio programs that people liked to listen to (like the Lone Ranger, the mystery horror show Inner Sanctum, and the children’s program Let’s Pretend), comic books and newspaper cartoons, magazines like Life and The Saturday Evening Post, and “Kilroy was here” graffiti. Sometimes, characters mention 1940s celebrities. After Gordy tries to make Elizabeth kiss him, she tells Margaret that a star like Joan Crawford would slap any guy who got “fresh” with her. Later, the girls overhear the boys talking about which pin-up girls they think are the most sexy, mentioning Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth.

Note: The boys’ “sexy” talk is at a realistically juvenile level, laughing over pictures of pin-up girls with big breasts and using the word “hubba-hubba.” An adult hearing a conversation like this knows that the boys probably feel grown-up for secretly smoking cigarettes at their hideout while talking about sexy women, but at the same time, they plainly sound like little boys who use words like “hubba-hubba” because that’s as sophisticated as they know how to be. They have nothing else to say on this subject. As Elizabeth and Margaret could attest, these boys have never successfully kissed a girl at this point in their lives because they’ve been making themselves unappealing to the girls in their vicinity by the mean and obnoxious ways they act. When the girls later go inside the boys’ hut, they see that the boys have defaced their pin-up pictures by giving all the girls beards and blackened teeth. They are definitely not young Casanovas.

This was the first book that introduced me to the concept of putting banners with stars in the window as a sign that someone in the family is in the armed forces. A blue star indicated (and still indicates) a living service member or veteran. A gold star means that the service member died in action. That’s important to the story because, even at the beginning of the book, Margaret knows what the blue stars and gold stars mean, and she already knows people in her community who were killed in the war. One of the people in the community who has died in the war was a young man called Butch who was killed only months after he got married. His widow, Barbara, gave birth to their son after his death, so Butch never saw him. Margaret is sad when she thinks about Butch and his family because she can remember when Butch was a local hero as quarterback on the high school football team. Later, Margaret’s brother, Jimmy, is also killed in the war, and the family replaces his blue star with a gold one, while Elizabeth’s family still has a blue star because Elizabeth’s brother, Joe, is still alive.

Danger and Safety

There are a lot of themes about safety and danger in the story, both real and perceived. When Margaret thinks about the crazy man Gordy says is living in the woods, she thinks that she would feel safer if Jimmy was home because Jimmy would protect her. Yet, when she thinks about Butch getting killed, Margaret realizes that, when big, strong, young men can be suddenly killed, nobody is ever really safe. Even the strongest men she knows are not completely invulnerable, and there are big, frightening, unpredictable things happening in the world.

At one point in the story, the girls talk about what they would do if girls were sent away to war like their brothers. Elizabeth brags about how brave she would be, but Margaret freely admits that she’s a coward and everyone knows it. Margaret imagines that, if she were out on a battlefield, she would probably drop to the ground and play dead until it was all over.

Later, when the girls learn the truth about Gordy, it brings the full realities of the war home to them and challenges everything that Elizabeth thinks about bravery and cowardice. The truth is that Gordy built the hut to hide his brother, Stuart. While one of Gordy’s brothers really did become a soldier and Gordy brags about him, Stuart became an army deserter. When Elizabeth finds out, she’s furious because her brother and Margaret’s are risking their lives, and she thinks that Stuart is a coward, letting others die for him and their country because he’s too afraid to fight. However, when the girls confront Stuart, Gordy, and the other boys about the situation, they learn that it’s more complicated than that. It takes Elizabeth longer to see how complicated the situation really is, but Margaret understands when Stuart describes his feelings.

Stuart is a pacifist. He’s not a coward or a Nazi sympathizer, as Elizabeth first accuses him. His logic is that two wrongs don’t make a right. While Hitler might want to take over the world and send people out to kill others, Stuart knows that the men who get sent away to be soldiers mostly don’t want to be soldiers at all and have no real desire to kill anyone else. If they had their choice, they would just be living their own lives and minding their own business at home. His speech makes Margaret really think for the first time about the war from the point of view of the soldiers on the ground. When her brother was drafted, Margaret never asked him how he felt about going away to war, just assuming that he’d want to defend his country and beat the Nazis. Now, she regrets not asking him about his feelings and wonders if he was scared or if he went reluctantly. For the first time, she also has to confront the reality that her brother has been actively killing or helping to kill other people. Stuart deserted because he simply couldn’t face the prospect of killing someone. He shows the girls a letter he got from their other brother, Donald, the one who became a soldier, telling him how horrible the war is and how they’ve sometimes killed civilians and even allies because of mistakes they’ve made. Stuart also introduces the girls to the poem The Man He Killed by Thomas Hardy. Margaret wonders how Jimmy felt about the idea of killing other people and if it’s really sane to be okay with the idea of killing. Margaret has always looked up to her older brother, seeing him as a protector, never thinking of him as a killer, but yet, he is actively engaging in killing. He doesn’t tell Margaret that part of things in his letters to her, but she realizes that’s what actually happening in Europe.

Finding out about Stuart creates a real problem for the girls. Because army desertion is illegal, the girls know they should tell someone about Stuart, but Gordy tells them that the hard reality is that deserters either get arrested or shot. If they report Stuart, they could be sending him to his death. Elizabeth, being the more brash and hard-hearted one, says that she doesn’t care because it would be no more than what he deserves (although she later takes that back). Instead, she settles for blackmailing Gordy and his friends into stopping their bullying of the girls and helping them rebuild their tree house.

However, the kids soon realize that Stuart can’t stay their secret forever. Stuart has gotten sick, and if he doesn’t get help, he could just die in the woods. Stuart was hoping that the war might just end, and people would stop caring about whether he’d joined the army or deserted, but nobody in 1944 knows when that’s going to happen. From their perspective, it could be months (close to the reality) or years. The war has been going on for years already. Stuart won’t survive in the woods for that long.

The kids also confront the reality that, while two wrongs don’t make a right when it comes to fighting, just standing back and doing nothing while other people are doing wrong is also wrong. Elizabeth is the first of the children to point out that the entire reason why desertion is illegal is that, if everyone just decided to opt out of fighting, people like Hitler would run overrun everyone because no one would put up a resistance. Leaving aside what the characters decide to do about Stuart for the moment, that brings me to the problems with Gordy and the people who should be responsible for him and aren’t.

Gordy’s Problems

I’m frequently the first to say, as Margaret does in the story, that just coming from a bad background shouldn’t allow a person to get a free pass on being a bully themselves. Two wrongs really don’t make a right, and to my way of thinking, people who bully others because they’ve been bullied themselves are bad because they’re doing to completely innocent people what they already know they hate being done to themselves. However, unlike what Margaret’s mother said earlier about how she wishes Margaret would have more sympathy for Gordy, I quickly realized that, first, sympathy is insufficient in situations like this, and second, Margaret’s mother is not really motivated by sympathy for Gordy. She has other, less admirable reasons for looking the other way, even when she knows exactly what’s going on in Gordy’s family and that he is actively abusing her own daughter.

Gordy frequently gets away with his bullying because people are afraid of both him and his father. On the way to school, when Gordy rips up Elizabeth’s homework and stomps on her school supplies to break them, and the crossing guards see it happen. However, even though it’s part of their duty to report things like this, they don’t want to do it. When Elizabeth asks them if they’re going to report it to their teacher, they make excuses about how that might be tattling and make their teacher mad and how it would be just their word against Gordy’s (ignoring the evidence of the ripped papers and broken school supplies). The reality is that they’re afraid of Gordy doing something to them in revenge. Elizabeth asks them if that means that she’s just going to have to suffer what Gordy does to her while Gordy gets away with it because they’re too afraid to said anything. The crossing guards are further afraid to give her a straight answer because everyone involved knows that the answer is, yes, that’s exactly what’s going to happen, and that’s exactly the reason why it’s going to happen. The crossing guards know that Gordy is going to continue being an abusive bully, and they know they’re going to let him do it without saying a word, and they know the reason why they’re going to do that is because they are scared. They’re not willing to put themselves on the line to protect Elizabeth even though that is a part of their job. Elizabeth, knowing all of this, tells them they’re cowards, and it’s the truth. Unfortunately, there are times when apparent cowardice can also be necessary self-preservation from a greater insanity, and much as I hate to admit it, this might be one of those situations.

There is the underlying problem in this community, and that’s the behavior of the adults. Part of the reason why the young crossing guards are so cowardly about the class bully is that they know darn well that no adult in their community is likely to act on anything they tell them about Gordy. Even if their teacher punishes Gordy temporarily by suspending him from school, Gordy will come back, mean and horrible as ever, with revenge on his mind. No adult is going to get to the real root of Gordy’s problems and solve them, so Gordy will continue to be a problem. It appears to be common knowledge in the community that Gordy’s father is an abusive drunk. Elizabeth and Margaret know it, and I think his teacher probably knows it, too. Gordy comes to school with a black eye. Barbara talks about it with the girls, saying that Stuart used to help protect Gordy from the worst of his father’s abuse and that Gordy needs someone to take care of him. Nobody can avoid knowing that the Smiths are an extremely troubled family. After Margaret and Elizabeth go to Gordy’s house to find him and witness Gordy’s father’s behavior for themselves, Margaret tries to talk to her mother about it, and her mother just says that what people do in their own houses is their business and they can’t interfere. That, right there, is part of the root of Gordy’s problems. The first root is his father’s drunken abuse, the second root is knowing that the adults in his community are aware of the situation and are deliberately looking the other way, and the third root are his own choices that prevent other people from getting close enough to help.

For the moment, I’d like to focus on Margaret’s mother and her non-interference policy when it comes to child abuse. A major part of the reason why Gordy continues to be abused by his father and why Gordy is able continue bullying and abusing other kids is exactly this policy of looking the other way. I think all of the adults in this community feel similarly, and I think a major part of the reason they do it is because the adults are scared of Gordy’s father and what he might do to them. Letting him beat his wife and children probably doesn’t feel great, but these adults excuse themselves for allowing that to repeatedly happen with their full knowledge by saying out loud that it’s none of their business while quietly thinking that letting a kid be beaten is better than being beaten or killed by this crazy man themselves. Apart from occasionally arresting Mr. Smith for getting publicly drunk and disorderly, after which he is released when he sobers up, nobody in the community, not even Elizabeth’s police officer father, does anything. The kids are the most active characters in the story, and the adults, like Margaret’s mother, want to shut them down from talking about it so they won’t have to feel like they should be doing something when they’re not. It doesn’t make the problem go away, but it does allow the adults to lie to themselves and pretend like it’s not a problem that they will have to deal with eventually, which is almost the same in the adults’ minds.

It is fitting that this is a World War II story because the situation with Gordy has parallels within the war itself. The United States initially didn’t want to become involved with the war because they saw what Hitler was doing as a European matter. People in the US didn’t want to become involved in the war because they knew it would mean risking their lives, and it wasn’t something they wanted to do if it wasn’t their problem and if it could be resolved without them. Self-preservation is a sign of sanity, but the problem with that mindset is that it doesn’t take into account the larger picture and the full, hard realities of the situations. Sometimes, even when you don’t go looking for trouble, trouble can come looking for you. The US wasn’t officially involved in the war effort except as a supplier until Pearl Harbor. That attack on the US naval fleet brought it home to the American public that it didn’t matter whether they wanted to be involved or not if another country decided to actively involve them.

It’s a similar situation with Gordy. Nobody wants Gordy to bully them, but he does it anyway. It doesn’t matter if the girls are in their own tree house in Margaret’s front yard, minding their own business; Gordy comes after them to destroy the tree house and steal the boards. Margaret’s parents know what happened, but they do nothing. All through the book, Margaret has times when she feels unsafe, but her parents don’t protect her from the closest and most obvious dangers, even when she tells her mother about them. Margaret’s parents don’t protect her because they are scared themselves and don’t want to get involved, even though they are already involved because it’s their daughter being abused … not unlike a deserter who flees the army to avoid fighting when his country is attacked.

Margaret would be the first to admit that she’s not the bravest person around, but yet, she is braver than many others around her because she can and will take action even when she’s scared. For most of the book, Margaret only gets into scrapes when she’s goaded into them by Elizabeth, but even Elizabeth observes that Margaret follows through once she starts something or sees that something needs to be done. The adults in the community can’t say the same. The abuse going on in the Smith household hasn’t stayed privately in the Smith household at all. It’s gone out into the community through Gordy and the other Smith children. It’s a public matter because Mr. Smith is repeatedly drunk and disorderly and intimidating to every adult in the community. It’s everyone’s business because everyone is suffering the results. However, the adults find it easier to keep telling themselves that they don’t need to do anything about it because they can’t deal with the discomfort that would come from a professional community intervention (or tell themselves they can’t deal with it, which isn’t quite the same thing), which is the one and only thing that could probably save the Smith family at this point, and by extension, everyone who’s been suffering from the second-hand bullying and abuse delivered by Gordy. While one person alone would genuinely be in danger from standing up to Gordy’s father, a concerted community effort including the police, local medical professionals, and the principal and teachers from the school showing a united front would be a safer and saner option. There is safety in numbers, provided that the “numbers” can get up the nerve to join the numbers.

I think Gordy should be held accountable for the things he’s done, and I think some reasonable adult should also point out to him that he’s been a fool to cultivate enemies instead of allies. Although Margaret and Elizabeth eventually become his allies for this adventure, sympathetic to the abuse that Gordy has suffered and to Stuart’s situation, if he had been nicer to them from the beginning, he would have gotten help for himself and his brother much sooner. Gordy is bitter toward other people in the community because he’s fully aware that they all refer to him and his family as “white trash”, although I think he should also be aware that it’s their behavior that causes people to look at them that way. Gordy himself has partly caused and perpetuated that image because of everything he does on a daily basis. While Gordy can’t help that his father is an abusive drunk, he can help being a bully himself, and as long as he acts like that, people will treat him as the bully he is and try to avoid him rather than give him the help he really needs. His father is his worst enemy, the adults in this town are largely useless, and Gordy is not only hurting others but sabotaging himself. Even when the girls try to help Gordy, they find it hard because he’s still mean to them and fights them every step of the way.

One final note I have is to point out that, while I’ve heard many kinds of insults and racial slurs in my life, the term “white trash” is possibly the only term I know that’s both an insulting slur to the people it’s used against and to an entire group of people who aren’t explicitly mention in the slur at the exact same time. That didn’t occur to me when I was a kid, but as an adult, I realize now the reason why the modifier “white” is added to the insult. The modifier implies a comparison. The implication is that the person using the term thinks that non-white people are “trash”, and they’re telling another white person that they’re also a kind of “trash” like that, as bad or maybe worse because, as a white person, they should be able to help their situation but aren’t helping themselves because they’re somehow inferior. It’s true that Gordy and others in his family haven’t been helping matters because they make it difficult for other people to help them, but it’s still a very weird dual insult.

Half-A-Moon Inn

Half-A-Moon Inn by Paul Fleischman, 1980.

Aaron is unable to speak and has been mute since birth, so he has to communicate with people mainly through writing messages he writes on a small chalkboard. His father was a sailor who died at sea, so he lives with only his mother. One day, his mother, who is a weaver, is planning to go to the market at Craftsbury so she can tell the cloth that she’s made. Usually, Aaron goes with her, but since he’s about to turn twelve years old, his mother decides that he’s old enough to stay home alone. His mother has always been protective of him because of his inability to speak, and Aaron is nervous at being alone at home overnight. Still, he agrees to stay home and look after the house while his mother is gone.

His mother warns him not to go far from the house until she returns home because they live far from the nearest town, and there are wild animals and brigands in the woods. She promises Aaron that she will bring him a special present for his birthday when she returns home.

However, his mother doesn’t return when she promised she would. Aaron begins to worry about her, thinking that she might have had trouble on the road because of the snow. Since he has traveled the road to Craftsbury with her before, Aaron decides to head to Craftsbury himself and see if he can find his mother on the way and help her. He assembles a pack with some supplies, and ignoring his mother’s instructions to stay at the house, he sets out to look for her.

The journey is more complicated than Aaron imagines, partly because, when he meets other people, not all of them know how to read the messages Aaron writes, making it difficult for Aaron to explain that he cannot talk and that he is looking for his mother. A ragman gives him some food and a ride on his wagon, but Aaron is frustrated because the man doesn’t understand what he writes or the pictures he draws.

The ride on the wagon takes a worrying turn when the ragman takes Aaron on a route he doesn’t recognize. When they come to an inn, the ragman drops off Aaron. Aaron thinks that he can stay the night at the inn and continue his journey on his own in the morning. Unfortunately, the woman who keeps the inn, Miss Grackle, can’t read Aaron’s notes, either.

Miss Grackle says that she’ll let him stay the night in exchange for a few chores, like lighting fires in the fireplaces, and Aaron nods that he accepts. He tries to show Miss Grackle the drawing he made of his mother, but she still doesn’t understand. Eventually, Miss Grackle comes to understand that Aaron can’t speak, but he still can’t seem to explain to her where he is going or why.

To Aaron’s surprise, Miss Grackle tells him in the morning that she looked into his dreams during the night. Through his dreams, she saw his mother and his home. She says that she knows he’s far from home and not likely to be found by anyone looking for him, if there is anyone looking for him. She has taken his belongings and boots, and she tells him that he will be staying at the inn, working for her and that he will now answer to the name of Sam, like the last boy she had.

Aaron has become Miss Grackle’s prisoner at the inn, unable to leave on his own without his boots! Miss Grackle is a thief, stealing from her guests, and she is confident that Aaron won’t be able to tell anyone about it. At first, Aaron thinks that he can get some help from one of the guests staying at the inn, but he encounters the same problem he’s had all along: he can’t talk to explain anything to anyone. The guests don’t even pay attention to him, Miss Grackle intercepts messages that he tries to write, and even when he manages to sneak a message onto the inn sign, other people can’t read it because they don’t know how to read. What can he do? How can he escape and find his mother?

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

My Reaction and Spoilers

This story is an adventure story that takes place at an indeterminate location and an indeterminate point in history, when people traveled by horse and wagon. It’s not a long story, but it is an intriguing one where a clever boy manages to outwit sinister villains. It reminds me a little of The Whipping Boy in setting, but there was no magic in that story, and there is in this one.

The atmosphere of the story seems like a fairy tale or folk tale. The evil, thieving innkeeper has a potion of some kind that she uses to put her guests to sleep and look into their dreams, which is how she saw Aaron’s dreams. The reason why she looks into people’s dreams is so she can learn more about who they are and where they come from. She’s looking for people who are more wealthy and important than they seem so she can hold them for ransom instead of just robbing them.

Miss Grackle’s magic apparently comes from her parents. Her mother was the one who came up with the method of looking into people’s dreams and robbing them. Her father was honest, and his determination to enforce honesty is the reason why Miss Grackle can’t run the inn by herself. Miss Grackle needs Aaron to light the fires in the inn because no fire will light in the hearths there if it is lit by a person who has been dishonest, and Miss Grackle has never been honest with anyone. Aaron finds a way to turn Miss Grackle’s greedy schemes to his advantage and escape. With Aaron gone and the only other person left in the inn as dishonest as she is, the villains are left to their fate in a snow storm that lasts for days.

Castles

Castles by Stephanie Turnbull, illustrated by Colin King, 2003.

This nonfiction picture book for kids is part of the Usborne Beginners series, originally published in Britain. There are other books about castles, knights, and life in the Middle Ages from Usborne, but this book in particular, like others in its series, is a simplified version meant for beginning readers. The book is recommended for ages 4 and up.

The book explains different types of castles and the parts of a castle. It also offers details about daily life for people who lived in castles, including hunting, food and feasts, and things they would do for fun.

There are also pages about knights, the armor they wore, jousts, and attacking and defending a castle.

The book ends by explaining why castles from the Middle Ages are in ruins today.

In the back of the book, there is a glossary of terms and a link to the Usborne site’s page of quicklinks, which still works and has links to child-friendly informational sites on various topics, organized first by topic and then by related book. Both the book and the website offer Internet safety tips for kids and parents.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

What Were Castles For?

What Were Castles For? by Phil Roxbee Cox, illustrated by Sue Stitt and Annabel Spenceley, 1994.

This nonfiction picture book for kids is part of the Usborne Starting Point History series, originally published in Britain.

I love books about daily life in the past, and this book explains the lives of people who lived in castles during the Middle Ages by answering questions about what castles were for and what people in castles did. Each page of the book is organized around sections answering specific questions.

First, the book describes the basic purpose of castles and different types of castles that have existed and how they were built. The, it shows different parts of a castle and what people did in different parts. One of my favorite parts is where they show what is in a castle’s keep, which is where the lord of the castle and his family lived. The book uses cutaway pictures to show what is inside buildings, and the detailed pictures show the different activities of the people.

Among the activities of the nobles who lived in castles, the book explains how they would hunt and hold feasts and jousts.

Knights and warfare were central to the purpose of a castle, which was to provide a defensible fortress for the noble families who lived in them and their supporters. The book explains how boys from noble families were raised and educated to be knights. There are also pages showing weapons and the siege of a castle.

One of the things I liked about this book is that, while it is mainly about castles and the people who lived in them, it also shows how people lived outside of castles in small villages, towns, and monasteries. While castles are iconic of the Middle Ages, seeing how people lived in these other places gives a more expanded view of life in Medieval times.

The pictures really make the book! Every picture from the cutaway castle views to the scenes of villages and towns or jousts and hunts, show many people and small details. There are little descriptions labeling the people and details, most giving extra historical information, but some just for fun so readers can notice humorous details, like the monk being chased by bees at the monastery, the chicken escaping along the castle wall, the sister who is happy that her brother is going off to learn to be a knight, and the page who is learning archery but hasn’t made the target yet (his last failed shot falls short of the target, but it’s labeled as the best he’s done so far).

In the back of the book, there is a section with the legend of Richard the Lionheart and his minstrel and a map marked with famous castles around the world.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies, including one in French).

Knights & Castles

The Usborne Time Traveller Book of Knights and Castles by Judy Hindley, illustrated by Toni Goffe, 1976, 1993.

This nonfiction picture book for kids is part of the Usborne Time Traveller Books series, originally published in Britain.

The contents are framed as a time back in time to the Middle Ages, specifically 1240 AD, to see how people would have lived in Medieval times and what castles were like when people actually lived in them. Readers follow a specific set of Medieval characters as they go about their lives.

Our trip back in time begins with a road journey to a castle. Readers see how people in the Middle Ages traveled. The journey page also explains how the Romans built the roads Medieval people used centuries earlier, which is a good historical segue because the period that we call the “Middle Ages” begins with the fall of the Roman Empire and the withdrawal of Roman forces from the furthest parts of its empire. On some pages of the book, there are extra panels at the bottom of the page with additional information, and the first set explains how we know what people would find if they were able to travel back in time to the Middle Ages, explaining how historians have gleaned information from Medieval writings and pictures and from studying physical objects, like buildings and tools.

When readers arrive at the castle, the book explains different parts of the castle and how they were used for defense.

I particular like the cutaway pictures of the interior of the keep because I enjoy the details of people’s living quarters and daily life in the past. There is a page that shows the morning routine of the castle and how people would get dressed for the day. There are also pages about hunts, feasts, a visit to a building site, and a trip to town.

There are a couple pages about knights and how a boy would train to be a knight. There are also pages about jousts, the Crusades, and attacking and defending a castle.

The pictures are cartoon-like, but they are busy and full of details for readers to study, accompanied by notes that offer more information and historical background.

At the end of the book, there is a map showing locations of famous European castles.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

Catherine Called Birdy

Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, 1994.

Catherine is a 14-year-old girl living in Medieval England in 1290. The entire book is written in the form of diary entries, but after the first few extremely short and unenthusiastic entries, Catherine reveals that she is not writing these entries of her own free will. Keeping a diary was her brother Edward’s idea. She explains that Edward, who is studying to be a monk, thinks that keeping a diary will help Catherine become “less childish and more learned.” At first, Catherine declares that she won’t continue writing and that Edward can write the diary himself if he wants it so badly, but she changes her mind when her mother releases her from the even more boring chore of spinning so that she can have more time to write. Although she can’t think of much of interest to write about her daily life at first, she would rather continue to try writing than spin.

From there, Catherine describes her life and family in detail. The diary continues for a full year, from September 1290 to September 1291. Catherine lives with her parents, but she isn’t fond of her father, who often hits her. Her father is a country knight, but not a particularly wealthy one. They have some servants but not enough that Catherine doesn’t need to help with household chores. She would much rather be out, running around the fields and playing than doing chores and sewing with the other ladies of the household. Catherine’s mother has suffered several miscarriages since her birth, and she still mourns for the children she has lost. Catherine is her youngest child, and she is the only one who still lives with her. Catherine has three older brothers, and none of them live at home anymore. Two of her brothers are away in the king’s service, and Edward is at his abbey. Catherine’s first diary entries are mostly about chores, avoiding chores, and pulling some admittedly childish pranks and stunts.

However, her diary entries soon note that a major change seems to be starting. She notices that her father is suddenly taking an unusual amount of interest in her. Usually, he pays little attention to her, except to give her a slap or smack, but suddenly, he starts asking her probing questions about herself and her health habits. It’s strange behavior for him, but Catherine soon realizes the reason why. Her father is planning to marry her off, or sell her off, as Catherine thinks of it. Catherine’s assessment is pretty accurate because the man is wealthy and has promised her father a handsome sum if Catherine marries him. Catherine’s father’s main interest in her and her future marriage is how it can benefit him.

Catherine doesn’t consider herself a great beauty, a very accomplished young lady, or a real prize, so she can’t imagine why this man might want her and even be willing to pay for the privilege. It turns out that her prospective suitor is a wool merchant whose ambition is to become mayor. Catherine’s family is nobility, although not very high-ranking or important nobility, but having a wife of noble blood would be to the merchant’s political advantage.

Catherine has already decided that she doesn’t want him. When Catherine learns that her prospective suitor will be coming to see her, she decides that she will act stupid and unappealing so he will give up the idea of marrying her. However, even though she scares away the first suitor, she is at the age when noble girls start to consider marriage, and there are soon other suitors. Catherine doesn’t want any of them! She doesn’t even want to be a noble young lady at all. The story of Catherine’s attempts to get rid of her unwanted suitors and to figure out what she really wants out of life are lively and humorous and sometimes touching.

The book is available to borrow and read for free through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

My Reaction

I enjoyed the details of everyday life that Catherine describes. She finds the typical chores that young ladies of her social class do boring, and she often dreams that she could do something more exciting or outdoors, whether it’s traveling on a Crusade or even just ploughing a field. Still, she describes her activities in detail, including the ingredients that she uses to make different types of medicines. One of the duties of a Medieval housewife was to tend to the health of members of the household, so like other Medieval young ladies, Catherine has been learning how to make various home remedies, with varying results.

Modern day anti-Semitism has roots in Medieval times, and this book also addresses that when Catherine’s mother allows a party of traveling Jews to stay the night. At this point in history, the king is ordering Jews to leave England because he thinks they are evil. These travelers are poor refugees on their way to live in Flanders (a region in modern Belgium). Catherine notes that her mother is not afraid of Jewish people, even though other members of their household are. Catherine herself is curious about them. She has heard stories that Jewish people secretly have horns and tails, like the devil, and she excitedly spies on them to see if it’s true. She is actually disappointed to find out that it’s not true and that these poor people are just poor people in ragged clothes. One of the women allows Catherine to listen while she tells stories to entertain the children in the group, and Catherine finds the stories charming. It occurs to her that there are different types of stories in the world, ones that are true and ones that aren’t, and that the stories people have told her about wicked Jewish people aren’t true. She even starts to think that it would be exciting if she were to join the Jewish group and go abroad with them to seek her fortune.

She does temporarily disguise herself as a boy to go with them, but when she explains to dissatisfaction with her life to the woman in the group, the woman discourages her from running away. The woman says to her that, in the end, nobody is going to ask her why she wasn’t like one of the boys or men but why she didn’t spend her life simply being Catherine. In one of her stories the night before, the woman had emphasized knowing who you are and where you are and what you are to orient yourself in the world. Although Catherine doesn’t fully understand it at first, the key to finding her happiness isn’t about running away from the things she doesn’t like in her life, whether it’s chores that she finds boring or a suitor she doesn’t like, but how to make choices that give her life a purpose that suits her and that lead her to better options.

Catherine daydreams about more exciting options in life, but none of them are really right for her because there are things that she doesn’t know about the realities of these other positions. She loves the beautiful illuminated manuscripts that monks like her brother make, and she wonders if she could disguise herself as a boy and become a monk so she can spend her days making beautiful paintings. Her brother laughs at the idea because he says that her figure is too feminine for her to be a boy, and there is no point in her becoming a nun because nuns spend most of their time sewing, one of the chores that Catherine doesn’t like. When she asks her Uncle George about being a Crusader, he tells her that war is more like hell than the heavenly adventure she is imagining. Although Catherine thinks than men’s work and war sound exciting, her brother and uncle realize that Catherine knows little of the reality behind them, and she would not be happy with the reality if she knew. Early in the book, she also laments about never having been allowed to see a public hanging, but when she learns more about them, she realizes that she doesn’t like them. This book reminds me a little of the picture book Hester the Jester, where another Medieval girl tries different professions before deciding that she’d rather be herself.

None of this is to say that there are only separate roles for men and women in life and that Catherine, as a young woman, would be incapable of doing anything other than typical women’s work. It’s really more that, while there are relatively limited possible occupations for a girl of Catherine’s time and social level, it’s the woman who makes the occupation rather than the occupation that makes the woman. Catherine can still be happy in her position as a young noblewoman of her time if she can learn to shape her position in life to suit her, learning and adjusting her life as she goes. That’s the best way for a girl in Catherine’s position to become her own woman.

An older noblewoman, who correctly guesses Catherine’s nickname of Birdy, talks to her about the lives of noblewomen. Although she is of a much higher rank than Catherine, she tells Catherine that her position also comes with duties and obligations, not the freedom and adventure that Catherine imagines. However, the older woman says that, just because she doesn’t spend all her time flapping her wings, doesn’t mean that she can’t fly, meaning that although she can’t control everything about her life and obligations, she is not powerless. She tells Catherine that she picks her battles and that Catherine should consider what she says and do the same. Catherine doesn’t understand her full meaning at first, but the older woman means that, rather than chafing over the position in life that she was born to and the things she can’t change, Catherine can focus on the parts that she can control and change. When Catherine gains a greater understanding of who she is and how she can remain herself in whatever circumstances she finds herself in life, she is ready to move forward in her life.

For a girl of Catherine’s social class, marriage is expected, unless she becomes a nun, which Catherine has already rejected as an option. Catherine doesn’t like the idea of marriage because she thinks that she knows what a marriage is like, based on her parents’ marriage, but Catherine’s mother tells her that a marriage is what you make it. Catherine’s father is a brutish man who drinks too much, but he treats his wife very differently from the way he treats everyone else, which is why she still loves him. Catherine observes that people can have layers and that sometimes, people are different when they’re in the company of different people. Even her brother Robert, who is frequently odious, surprises her with a great kindness when she needs it. It helps Catherine to realize that marriage might not be so bad if it can be with a person who is kind and agreeable in the ways that matter to her.

A major part of Catherine’s problem is that her choice of who to marry largely depends on what her father arranges, and her father is an uncaring, brutish man who sees Catherine more as an asset to be used than a person whose own future needs to be nurtured. Although Catherine doesn’t like the men her father would pick to be her suitor, mostly because they would benefit him more than Catherine, circumstances eventually allow Catherine to marry a man who would suit her instead. Like Catherine, her new intended husband is known to be a man who values learning and was criticized by his brutish father about it, so the two of them may understand each other and share similar ideals in life. Being a married woman who is married to a man who suits her, rather than trapping Catherine in an unwanted position in life, will allow her to run her own household in her own fashion and give her a way to escape from her father and his abusive and self-serving treatment.

I particularly liked some of interesting the Medieval superstitions that Catherine believes. When her mother gives birth to her little sister at the end of the book, Catherine unties all of the knots in the house, which I’ve heard of before as a superstition to help ease births.

Because of some of the content of the book, like the description of the difficult birth of Catherine’s sister, I think this story would be best for tweens and teens.

Crispin and the Cross of Lead

Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi, 2002.

The story begins in 1377 in England. It begins with the death of the boy’s mother, Asta. The boy is only known as “Asta’s son” at this point. Nobody has ever called him anything else for as long as he can remember. Even his mother only called him “Son.” He is 13 years old and has no knowledge of who his father was, although his mother told him that he died of the Plague before he was born. As a fatherless child, he was often taunted by others in their little village, and he noticed that no one really seemed to like his mother, although he never really understood why. The only real friend they’ve had is the village priest. With his mother gone and John Aycliffe, the steward of the manor of Lord Furnival that controls the area where they live, demanding his only ox as the death tax for his mother, the boy fears starvation.

As a bleak future lies before the boy, something happens which makes his situation even more dire. He witnesses a secret meeting between John Aycliffe and a mysterious stranger. The boy doesn’t understand the significance of the meeting, but Aycliffe catches him watching and tries to kill him. The boy escapes, but it soon becomes clear that he can’t go home again. Aycliffe has people hunting for him, and he overhears a couple of them talking, saying that the steward has accuse him of stealing from him. No one actually likes Aycliffe and they don’t really believe that the boy is a thief, but they have no choice but to follow the steward’s orders because he’s a relative of Lord Furnival’s wife, and that’s how he gained his position.

Not knowing why Aycliffe has framed him for theft and not having anywhere else to go, the boy turns to the village priest for help. He discusses the meeting he witnessed between Aycliffe and the mysterious stranger, and the priest reveals that Lord Furnival, who has been away, fighting, has returned home but is now dying. The stranger, Sir Richard du Brey, brought the news of Lord Furnival’s impending death, but the boy knows that Aycliffe and du Brey seemed concerned about another matter, something they said posed a threat to them.

The priest tells the boy that Aycliffe means to have him killed and that his only choice is to run away. The boy doesn’t see how he can do that or where he’s supposed to go because he has lived all of his life as a serf, bound to the land. The priest tells him that he needs to go to a big town and stay there for a year and a day to gain his freedom from serfdom (this was a true historical way for people to escape serfdom in the Middle Ages). The priest also tells the boy that his real name is Crispin, but his mother didn’t want anyone else to know, for reasons that he doesn’t explain. He asks Crispin if his mother ever told him anything about his father, but the boy just says that all he knows is that his father is dead. Crispin asks the priest if there’s something that he’s not telling him about his mother, but the priest doesn’t explain. Instead, he tells Crispin that the most important thing is for him to get away. He tells Crispin to hide in the woods while he gathers some things to help him on his journey, and he promises to tell him more about his father when they see each other again. He says that it would be safer for Crispin to know more right before he leaves. (You just know that when someone has something important to say but would prefer to say it later, that person is probably doomed.)

When Crispin waits for the priest to come for him later, a boy from the village shows up instead, saying that the priest sent him. The boy, Cerdic, guides him to Goodwife Peregrine’s house, and she advises him to go to the south because the steward’s men are searching the road to the north. She gives him some food and a cross made of lead in a leather pouch. Before Crispin leaves the village, however, Cerdic says that maybe he should head north after all because the steward might have been lying about searching the north, just to make Crispin think that he should go south. Cerdic says that the priest told him that the best way for Crispin to go would be west because that’s what everyone would least expect. It would be the last thing anyone would expect because the Lord Furnival’s manor house lies in that direction. However, Crispin soon discovers that he has been led into a trap and that the steward is waiting for him. He manages to escape, but he discovers that the priest has been murdered, preventing him from telling him whatever he knew.

Crispin wanders by himself until he finds an empty village where everyone was apparently killed by the Plague. However, there is one other person in the village, a traveling entertainer. The entertainer gives Crispin some food, but he also forces him to tell him his story. Realizing that the boy is a runaway, he forces Crispin to become his servant on the principle that a runaway serf can be taken by anyone. Crispin doesn’t want him for a master, but he has no choice because, if he refuses, the entertainer could easily turn him over to the steward at his former manor, where he would be killed.

The entertainer explains that his name is Orson Hrothgar, but his nickname is Bear because he is a large man. He shows Crispin his juggling and explains that’s how he makes his living. He asks Crispin what he can do, but all Crispin knows is the farming he did as a serf. Bear says that there is no way he could make a living on those skills in any city he went to and he’s going to have to acquire some new ones. Bear is a strange master, giving orders like a tyrant but at the same time claiming to hate tyranny and keeping Crispin firmly in his service while refusing to be called “sir” because he thinks that it makes Crispin sound too servile. As Bear and Crispin get to know each other, it starts becoming obvious that Bear is actually trying to help Crispin when he’s hard on him and even forcing him to serve him is actually in Crispin’s favor because Crispin doesn’t know how to survive by himself in the wider world and hesitates to make decisions for himself without guidance or orders from someone. The threat against Crispin’s life is real, and he’s gong to need help and guidance to survive.

Bear teaches Crispin how to sing and juggle so he can perform with him, but he also teaches the boy how to have some respect for himself and how to take charge of his own life. He can tell that Crispin has been badly neglected in his early life, taught only to obey orders and not ask questions. Because, for a long time, Crispin didn’t even know he own name, he thinks of himself as basically a nobody who doesn’t have a place in the world and isn’t worth anything to anyone. Bear takes Crispin in hand and shows him that his life and his own self are what he decides to make of them.

Bear’s own history is a strange story, and he tells Crispin how his father originally enrolled him in a Benedictine abbey at a young age to be a monk. While he was there, he learned to read and actually became a scholar, but before he took his final vows, he happened to meet a group of mummers, and he was charmed by the life of a traveling entertainer. He abandoned the abbey and traveled with the mummers for a time. He has also been a soldier, and during his time as a soldier, he met Lord Furnival. Crispin asks him what Lord Furnival is like because, even though he has always served on his land, he’s never actually met him. Bear describes Lord Furnival as a cruel man who used other men for his own gain and killed them when he had no use for them.

When they arrive at a new town, Bear assumes that Crispin will be safe to perform in public, having left his enemies behind because few people would pursue a poor boy of no important family or position over the theft that he was accused of doing back in his village. However, Crispin is alarmed to see Aycliffe as they enter the town. Bear realizes that there must be more to Crispin and his situation than even he knows. The murder of the priest back in the village is a shocking crime and must have been intended to silence him from telling whatever he knew. If Aycliffe poses a threat to Crispin, it seems that Crispin must also somehow pose a threat to him, a threat that he thinks must be eliminated. Discovering the reason for targeting Crispin also means unraveling the secrets of Crispin’s past and parentage, and along the way, Crispin also comes to a new vision of the future that he may build for himself.

There is a section in the back of the book which explains the history of this time period and some of the wider events that are a part of this story. The copy I read also had the text of an interview with the author.

This book is a Newbery Medal winner. It is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies). There is also a sequel to this book called Crispin at the Edge of the World.

My Reaction and Spoilers

I read this book partly because I liked Midnight Magic by the same author, and I was pleased to see another mystery story by Avi set in Medieval times. However, the two books have a very different tone from each other. Midnight Magic featured palace intrigue and possible murder, but it was a spooky mystery adventure. Although there were dark themes, it had a sense of whimsy and fun adventure to it, playing with superstitions and a kind of spooky prank, even though it had high stakes. Crispin begins immediately with a mystery orphan who has people who are actively trying to kill him for reasons he doesn’t understand and who is forced to flee for his life. It’s much darker and more serious in tone, and there are parts where dead bodies are actually described in detail. This is definitely not a book for young kids!

The mystery in the story centers around the boy’s true identity and parentage. I thought it was obvious even from the beginning that the boy’s father would turn out to be someone important, whose identity might become known through the deaths of his mother and Lord Furnival and who might pose a threat to the villains in the story through whatever position and inheritance he might have.

It isn’t that much of a surprise that Lord Furnival is Crispin’s father. When he was alive (he dies during the story), he used women for his purposes as well as men. Crispin is not the only child he had by women other than his wife, who apparently, was unable to bear children. The story doesn’t explain who Crispin’s other half-siblings might be or where they are, but the other characters quickly realize that the reason why Lady Furnival and her kinsman, Aycliffe, want Crispin dead is that he might make a claim on his estate, or worse yet, other people might use Crispin to undermine their power. This is a dangerous time, and many people are competing for power and influence. Crispin’s mother was also no ordinary peasant girl. She has kin who are still alive and may be in a position to use Crispin and whatever inheritance or title he could claim to solidify their own positions. Even Crispin’s grandfather, if he became aware of the boy’s existence, might look at Crispin less as a beloved but previously unknown grandson, but more as an unexpected windfall that he could control and use to his advantage. Bear is really the only person who cares about Crispin’s welfare for his own sake, not for what he might be able to gain or achieve through him.

The plot is further complicated because it turns out that Bear is no ordinary entertainer. He turns out to be involved with a real historical character, John Ball, the priest who helped lead the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The pieces of philosophy that Bear discusses with Crispin throughout the story are not just academic, and for all of Bear’s apparent lightness as an entertainer, he is actually a deeply serious man who is participating in a clandestine organization that plans to put his principles into action in the form of a rebellion. In his travels, Bear acts as a kind of spy, carrying information to different leaders of his group. There are indications in the story of social unrest and the coming violence. Sadly, in real life, most of the leaders of this revolt were caught and put to death, including John Ball. This endeavor isn’t going to work out well for Bear’s associates and maybe not even for Bear himself, and that probably figures into the sequel to this book.

I particularly liked this book for the inclusion of many small historical details. Throughout the story, Bear and Crispin discuss aspects of Medieval law, social structure, and religion in England, and there are also some details about daily life and the Plague. The only Christian religion in the book is Catholic because the story takes place prior to the Reformation, so all of the religious talk in the book is from that perspective, although Bear and Crispin debate with each other about the role of God in determining a person’s position in life and human decisions (like when a person should wait to act on divine guidance vs making decisions for themselves) and the use of religious objects (like whether Crispin’s lead cross serves a purpose in prayer or if prayer should simply be private and mental, with no outside sign), which leaves room for readers to consider what they believe and their own views of the situation.

A small detail that I liked was Bear’s explanation of what the different colors of the robes of different types of monks mean. The different orders of monks and priests – Dominican (white robes), Franciscan (brown), and Benedictine (black) – still exist in modern times and still have a somewhat different focus from each other in their activities. As a Catholic, I know that Dominicans are usually (but not always) the priests who celebrate public masses in local churches (Bear describes them saying, “They preach well” because that’s a major focus of what that order of clergy does), and Jesuits (who don’t exist yet at the time of this story) are typically (but not exclusively) the ones who teach in Catholic schools (which I’ve never attended – I came up exclusively through public schools) and universities (Loyola Marymount University is an example). These are the two groups I’ve seen the most in my life in the modern southwestern US, but they are not the only orders of Catholic clergy. For example, the book didn’t mention the Cistercians, who also existed at the time of this story and are basically more strict, austere versions of the Benedictines. I like this particular detail because it shows how there is depth to every subject. A non-Catholic might not know that these different orders of clergy exist, and it matters because each of these groups does have a different focus in their views, methods, and lifestyles while still falling within the sphere of being Catholic. In Medieval England, because each of these groups would have performed somewhat different functions in society because of their different focus and people of the time would have been aware of the differences between them. If you’re a fan of Dungeons and Dragons, the concept of different subclasses of clerics have real-life parallels, not just in historical polytheistic religions but even in modern monotheistic religions.

It was common for Medieval monastic orders to support themselves through agriculture (when society was largely based on agriculture, abbeys kept their own lands and animals for support), but monks, priests, and nuns could also fulfill a variety of professions and services in society, some as charity and others as paid roles to support themselves and their orders. Aside from their basic religious functions, they could act as scribes, copying, writing, and illustrating religious and historical books and manuscripts on commission (essentially, the book publishers of their day, before printing presses were available). When Bear was young, his father enrolled him in a Benedictine abbey. He explains that he learned to read in different languages there, so this was probably the work they were preparing him to do if he had continued with his training there, rather than the public preaching he would have been taught to do if he had joined the Dominican order. It was one of the functions that Benedictines were known for, and it would have been a good order for someone to join if they wanted to lead an intellectual or academic life in the Middle Ages. Bear gets much of his philosophical attitude and reflection from his early Benedictine education, although he values the independent form of free thought that he developed through his years of travel to the more strict form of traditional scholarship the abbey would provide. Religious orders that emphasized reading, writing, and learning could also provide tutors to wealthy families to teach their children these skills and clerks (derived from the word “clergyman” or “cleric”), who would keep important financial, legal, and political records for influential people in society. Abbeys and monasteries might also provide lodging for travelers in places where there were no inns, hospitals for the sick and injured, and various forms of charity for those who needed it (the social services of their time). Although joining one of these orders involved strict rules and vows of chastity and poverty (any wealth they acquired was supposed to be used to support the group and their functions rather than mere personal gain), there were opportunities for intellectual as well as spiritual development and a chance to lead a more varied life than other parts of society might provide at the time.

In their travels, Bear and Crispin see many different types of people who would all have been part of Medieval English society. Not all of their jobs and positions are described in detail, but if someone was using this book with students working on a Medieval lesson unit, they could make notes about all of the different types of people Bear and Crispin meet and look up the details of their roles in society to get a more detailed picture of the world these characters are moving through.

Adam of the Road

Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray Vining, illustrated by Robert Lawson, 1942.

The story takes place in England in 1294. It’s summer, and eleven-year-old Adam Quartermayne is waiting for his father, Roger the minstrel, to come see him at the dormitory where he’s been living while he’s going to school at the Abbey of St. Alban. Roger Quartermayne has been in France, attending a minstrels’ school, where he has been learning new songs and stories. More than anything, Adam wants to go on the road with his father, traveling from town to town, playing their musical instruments.

Roger is a higher class of minstrel than most, truly skilled in his art, welcome even in noble manor houses and castles, and well-paid for his performances. Roger plays a viol, while Adam can play the harp. Adam practices his playing while at school and tells stories to the other students. Although his teachers would prefer that he spent his story-telling time talking about the saints, they allow him to entertain the other boys as long as his stories are tasteful and not rude or mocking. Adam’s father has impressed on him that a minstrel’s job is not to tell his own feelings but to choose entertainment that suits the mood of his audience, whether it’s happy or sad. (In other words, they know how to read a room, and a good minstrel can make the audience feel like he’s saying what’s on the minds of the listeners.)

Adam’s closest companions at school are his best friend, Perkin, and his dog, Nick. Since Nick isn’t allowed in the dormitory, Adam pays for him to board with a woman in town. He and Perkin go to visit Nick when they can. Adam has taught Nick to do entertaining tricks, as befits a minstrel’s dog.

When Adam’s father comes, he tells Adam that he has taken a position with Sir Edmund de Lisle and is now traveling with his party. Roger invites Adam to join him on their journey to London, and Adam eager accepts. His only regret at leaving the school is that Perkin cannot come with them, but Perkin says that they’ll see each other again. Perkin’s father is a ploughman (this video, from Crow’s Eye Productions, explains a little about the life of a ploughman and how they dressed), and he says that, if they pass through the village where he lives, they can stop and visit his parents and the parson who sent him to the abbey school.

The open road is like home to minstrels like Roger and Adam. They spend their journey entertaining Sir Edmund’s party with stories. Adam develops a crush on Sir Edmund’s pretty niece, Margery, although her brother, Hugh, is an annoying snob. Adam’s first efforts to join his father in playing music are awkward and embarrassing, but Roger says he will improve. Adam is also lonely without Perkin to talk to. There are other boys at Sir Edmund’s manor house, but they all ignore him. They become friendlier when Adam takes the advice of a friendly squire to lend them his horse for their jousting practice when Hugh’s horse is lame. At first, Hugh thinks that a minstrel like Adam wouldn’t know anything about martial arts, but Adam demonstrates that he has also had some training, causing Hugh to give him more respect. From then on, he is able to join the other boys in their games.

At the wedding of Sir Edmund’s daughter, Emilie, Adam has the chance to see many other minstrels and entertainers of various kinds. Although both Adam and his father are richly rewarded for their performance, Roger gambles away his share of the money playing dice with the other minstrels. He tells Adam to keep his own money close to him and not to hand it over to him, even if he asks for it. Roger recognizes that he has a gambling problem and can’t be trusted with money. Worse still, he gambled away their horse, too. It’s upsetting to Adam because they had never had a horse before, and he was fond of it. He also knows that Hugh was fond of that horse. Roger is embarrassed about what he has done, and Hugh worries that Jankin, the man who won the horse, will ride him to death because he doesn’t know how to take care of horses.

Although they are still in the employ of Sir Edmund, he will not be needing them for a while, now that the wedding of his daughter is over. Roger and Adam go on the road again, although they are supposed to return to Sir Edmund’s manor after traveling their route. In London, they meet up with Jankin again, and he tries to get Roger to gamble with him again for ownership of Adam’s dog, but Roger refuses, saying he doesn’t want to play anymore and the dog belongs to his son. However, when they happen to be staying at the same inn later, Jankin steals Adam’s dog!

Roger and Adam hurry after Jankin to get Nick back, asking people they meet on the road which way he went with their dog. They almost catch up to him at a ferry, but he gets on the boat and it leaves before they can reach it. Not wanting to wait for the ferry to return and desperate to reach his dog, Nick jumps in the water and tries to swim after the ferry, but he is still unable to catch up. When he climbs out of the river, he is alone and too tired to continue the pursuit anymore. He is separated from his father, but he still has his harp, thanks to a kind woman who helped him. What is he going to do? Will he ever find his dog or father again?

The book is a Newbery Medal winner. It is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

My Reaction and Spoilers

The story offers a ground-level view of Medieval society. Through his travels, Adam mixes with children and adults from various levels of society. Adam begins at a monastery school, taught by monks. Then, he joins his father, working for a noble family and living at their manor, where Adam becomes friends with noble boys training to be knights. They meet other minstrels, and when they travel on the road, they also meet traveling pilgrims, stay at inns and speak to the innkeepers. When Adam is on his own, he briefly stays with a ferryman and his wife, travels with a merchant, is robbed by highwaymen and has to get help from local law enforcement, gets information from a shepherd, attends a large fair with people of all kinds, and toward the end of the book, spends time with Perkin and his family, helping his father with ploughing. Along the way, Adam learns many things about people and different members of society, including how girls are treated differently from boys, even in noble families and what common people think about the king and parliament and how they make laws.

During the course of the story, Adam and his father also discuss some of the philosophy behind their own profession. It begins with Adam’s reflection on what his father said about choosing his selections of songs and stories to appeal to his audience because his job is to please others, not merely himself. However, when Adam briefly joins up with some poorer minstrels, he comes to understand that it’s not just a matter of giving people what they want. A better minstrel not only gives people material they like but which appeals to the better sides of their personalities, elevating them to their highest versions of themselves, instead of just catering to everyone’s lower tastes. Understanding other people and their lives and tastes are critical to the job of being an entertainer. Adam also learns a little about the use of humor and how it can benefit both himself and others when used well. At one point, when Adam is recovering from an incident that was embarrassing to him, he makes a joke about it that amuses a new friend, and when his new friend laughs, Adam realizes that he feels better about the embarrassing incident. His use of humor softens his feelings of embarrassment and also provides a useful tool for entertaining and bonding with someone else. The story compares it to an oyster turning an irritant into a pearl that is both less irritating to the oyster and something beautiful for someone else. Although Adam goes through genuinely terrible circumstances through his travels, the experience shapes his views of life and the type of minstrel he wants to be.

I was genuinely worried about the animals in the story because I find it stressful to read about animal cruelty. Fortunately, both the horse and dog survive their experiences with Jankin, and Adam is reunited with his father and Nick.

I enjoyed the pieces of real Medieval songs that appear throughout the story, like Sumer is I-cumen In (You can hear the song in this YouTube video. This one explains what the Old English words mean. It’s about the beauties of nature and lively animals at the beginning of summer, apparently with a confusing line about farting billy goats.) and an old version of London Bridge is Falling Down, which also includes an explanation of the story behind the the song.

As another piece of trivia, Jankin is actually a Medieval nickname for John. In Medieval times, it was common to get new nicknames for certain common names by changing just one letter or sound in the name and/or adding “-kin” to the end of a name as a diminutive, like we might add a “-y” for Johnny. In fact, the name Jack that is used as a nickname for John comes from this earlier nickname – John to Jan to Jankin to Jackin to Jack. We get other nicknames that don’t completely resemble the original name from this same method of creating new nicknames, like the nickname Peggy for Margaret – Margaret to Maggie to Meggy to Peggy.