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.