Attitude: Some Care Needed → Positive
In Brief: Honest efforts by a returning young evacuee to fit into now unfamiliar surroundings. Contrast between pre- and post-war expectations of conventional roles. Casting in a good light a more bohemian style of upbringing, less concerned with conventional taboos and more with children's freedom. Family tension and break-up.
Age Range: Pre Teens+
Period: Mid 20th C
- Virginia "Rusty" Dickinson returns from five years' evacuation to the United States during the War. She is perplexed by the entirely different attitude of her family to that of her American hosts.
- Peggy Dickinson is Rusty's mother who has found a new independence during the war working for the WVS, and especially as a vehicle mechanic.
- Roger Dickinson, Rusty's father, returns after VJ Day and expects nothing to have changed in six years.
- Charlie is Rusty's younger brother who hardly knew his father and who is bewildered by his rigidity.
Rusty is a 12-year-old English girl returning home after spending the war years with a family in the USA. Her host family was very free and easy, and things were plentiful. She now has to get used to the privations of post-WWII England exacerbated by her father and his mother who expect life to go on as it did before and everyone to behave the same. She is sent to a boarding school, which she hates, and blames her father and her mother for thwarting her ambition to become an interior designer.
Doubtless most parents would like their young children to acquire the values and ideals which they, the parents, hold. When the children make friends, parents will cast a more or less earnest eye over what their sons and daughters are picking up from their playmates. But sometimes extreme circumstances force children apart from their parents. The onset of the Second World War in Europe was the catalyst for just such an explosion, tearing families apart as fathers went off to war, mothers joined voluntary services and city children were evacuated to less dangerous areas of the country, or even abroad to other English-speaking countries.
So what then happens when the circumstances change again, and the family comes back together? That is the question which this book answers from the point of view of one particular family: the Dickinsons. It is the story of a culture clash between three members of the same family whose respective cultural outlooks have changed over the six years they've been apart. Roger, the father back from the war, expects nothing to have changed. Peggy, the mother, has discovered an independence and an outlook she wants to hold on to. Rusty, their 12-year-old daughter, has grown up in the more plentiful and carefree environment of a mildly bohemian American family, and is resentful towards both her parents who — for different reasons — push in her a direction she does not want to go.
The story focuses on the characters of Rusty and Peggy, and, although most of the time you are seeing through Rusty's eyes, the author takes her usual approach of giving you occasional insights into either character's mind, leaving you sympathetic as Peggy can't quite bring herself to say something personal enough to bridge the gap between herself and her daughter. There is no such sympathy for Roger, her husband, who doesn't even try. It's a pity we never hear his thoughts, never hear the bewilderment he himself must feel as he tries to pull in one direction a family which seems to pull in another. While we learn a lot about what Peggy and Rusty have been through, we never hear a word about what Roger might have suffered. Which is a shame, even though his position is clearly increasingly unreasonable and rigid.
And yet, the story does not demonise any character: Peggy and Rusty both try to be honest with Roger, to give him the chance he needs to see them as the people they are now. Even at the end, when the family has agreed to live apart, his character is not dismissed, but simply leaves the others sad at his refusal to accept them and the way of life they would like. The author isn't glorifying in a family breakup, merely sensing the material necessity of something which has already happened in spirit.
The school she is forced to go to hurts Rusty the most. She's a friendly girl who tries to bring herself to like her parents and their friends, recognising that life has been different for people in England. But like her father and his mother, the girls and staff at her school universally shun her friendliness, belittle or dismiss her easygoing attitude, and ultimately drive her to run away. Was there no-one, no more sympathetic teacher at the school, to treat Rusty as a human being rather than as a uniformed cog in an educational works? In contrast, the school in Devon where Rusty first stays with Peggy and Charlie is open-minded in the extreme. Obviously evoking A.S. Neill's Summerhill School, the youngsters take the classes they want and delight in the school and its opportunities. The contrast between the two styles of education couldn't be wider and is a clear metaphor for the change which many saw in British society at the time.
Half the book takes place in Devon, where Peggy was working for the WVS during the war, at her happiest as a motor mechanic. This turns amusingly to her advantage later when, out on a family drive, the car breaks down and Roger is obviously unable to fix it: it takes Peggy about three minutes, while Roger is at first condescending and then furious. Devon represents freedom for Peggy and Rusty. The local characters are friendly and open: Ivy who marries Mitch, a GI, the Honourable Beattie, elderly but fun-loving and wise, who gives Peggy her house, and the Hatherley family whose children offer Rusty the friendship of her own generation.
As if to emphasise this freedom, Rusty and the other children undress and dance in the rain one day while they're washing Beattie's curtains, causing Peggy to reflect that she has missed her daughter's childhood, as the girl has already reached puberty. All this would be inconceivable in the Dickinson's stuffy Guildford suburb. It is to this place that Rusty runs when she leaves her school, and it is this place that Peggy, Rusty and Charlie finally call Home when they leave Roger and his mother in London to carry on their pre-war lives alone.
- Different kinds of school
- Changes in family life after the War
“Leave this room immediately!” bellowed her father.
Rusty flung her napkin to the table and stalked out.
“I told you she was rebellious,” said Mrs Dickinson Senior. “Margaret! What are you doing?”
“I'm going to have a word with her,” Peggy said, rising.
“You will do no such thing,” snapped her husband. “Sit down.”
“Margaret, that is an order.”
“Is it! How interesting.”
“Margaret!” said Mrs Dickinson Senior. “Come back.”
But Peggy was halfway out the room. Mrs Dickinson Senior turned hastily to her son. “You see what I've had to put up with!” she said.
Thursday 18th August 2005