Archive for the ‘Kit Pearson’ Category

British “war guests” arriving in Montreal, 7 July 1940

I think I was eight when I first read The Guests of War Trilogy by Kit Pearson.  I can’t remember if I got the books from the school library or the public library, or even if I purchased them for myself (my parents’ book-buying ban having already been in place by then), but I do know that over the next four years I read them over and over again, absorbing every detail about the lives of Norah and Gavin Stokes, two English children evacuated to Canada during the Second World War. I loved these books.  I cried over them, I sighed over them, and I came away from them with a fascination for wartime social history which, as you well know, has stuck with me through the years.  I had been a bit scared to try them again as an adult – how could they possibly live up to my memories? – but am thrilled to report that I love them now just as much if not more than I did as I child.

The Sky is Falling (1989) begins in August 1940, when ten-year old Norah Stokes is having the best summer of her life.  The adults around her might be anxious about the aerial dogfights being waged in the skies above their Kentish village but for Norah and her friends the Battle of Britain is endlessly thrilling and they spend hours learning to identify all the different planes involved.  But Norah’s perfect summer is disrupted when her parents tell her that they have decided to send her and her five-year old brother Gavin to Canada as “war guests”.  For Norah who has joined her friends in reviling their classmates who have already been evacuated, it is a crushing blow.  She wants to stay in England, to take part in the war, not be sent away to safety like a coward.  But at ten, her opinion matters very little and soon she and Gavin are on a ship, bound for Canada.  Once they arrive they make their way to Toronto, where they are taken in by the wealthy, domineering widow Mrs. Florence Ogilvie and her timid middle-aged daughter, Mary.  Mrs Ogilvie had only wanted Gavin but was forced to take Norah as well, something Norah unfortunately overheard and instantly soured her against her new guardians.

The novel follows Norah’s unhappy first few months in Canada.  Norah is obnoxious, which is I think part of what I found so refreshing when I first read this as a child and what I still appreciate now.  As a reader, you feel her pain and anger and loneliness and can sympathize with her, but you still see how she is hurting those around her, especially Gavin.  Having been told by her parents to take special care of Gavin, Norah ignores him almost completely from the moment their journey begins.  At five, he is equally scared but much more adaptable and she lashes out at him when he begins to forget their family and home in England.  He is coddled by Mrs Ogilvie (Aunt Florence), who having lost her beloved son Hugh during the last war in thrilled to have a little boy in the house once more, and being kept so much in adult company is lonely.  Norah remains oblivious to his attempts to reach out to her, caught up in her own sorrow, and I think as an adult I feel the poignancy of those rebuffs even more than I did when I was younger.

Very, very slowly, Norah begins to find things that make life tolerable in Toronto.  She makes a few friends – one suitable, according to Aunt Florence, and one not – and finds a refuge at the public library, where the young librarian is only too happy to help an eager young reader find new books.  She worries constantly about her family in England, longing to return to them, but, finally, her tense relationship with Aunt Florence comes to a crisis point and a tentative peace in made between the strong-willed woman and the equally strong-willed girl.

My favourite book in the trilogy was always Looking at the Moon (1991) and my copy is ridiculously worn when compared to the other two books.  It is the most girly of the books, dealing with typically female coming of age rites like first love and periods, which is part of what fascinated me as a girl but mostly I adored the setting: the entire story takes place a Gairloch, the magical family cottage in Muskoka where days are spent swimming, sailing, and running around the island.

Set during the summer of 1943, Norah is now thirteen and has been in Canada for almost three years.  She has friends in Toronto, is settled into school and is doing well, and has atoned for the brief months she neglected Gavin after they first arrived.  She even gets along with Aunt Florence.  But as much as she loves Gairloch and adores being surrounded by her “cousins” there, the war and her family are constantly in her thoughts.  The contrast between her life and theirs weighs on her and, as always, she worries that Gavin is forgetting their parents and sisters.  But she is still a thirteen year old girl and her main worry that summer is her new love for nineteen-year old Andrew, one of the “cousins”.

Andrew is the family’s golden boy, the one who can do no wrong, the one who even Aunt Florence views as almost as perfect as her dearly loved Hugh.  He is smart and handsome, kind and obliging, and, as Norah learns, suffering under the weight of his family’s expectations.  As Norah gets to know Andrew better, he confides in her some of the things he cannot tell his family: his longing to be an actor, his fear of disappointing everyone, and his horror at the idea of being forced to kill people.  These conversations, though not the lover-like tête-à-têtes Norah likes to fantasize about, force her to reconsider her view of the war and her image of courage.

I was worried that reading this as an adult would reveal weaknesses I hadn’t seen as a child, but it did not.  Instead, I appreciated it even more, recognizing how perfectly Pearson captured the complexities of both Norah and Andrew, both of whom possess unusual maturity but also the typical contradictions and weaknesses of teenagers.  They feel spectacularly real to me.  And I don’t think I had ever fully appreciated the contrast Gairloch provides to the war-torn world.  It is the ultimate safe haven, where children and adults are free to play and relax and forget what is going on in Europe and Asia for as long as they can – until a letter comes from Norah and Gavin’s family or the rationed butter is all used up in one meal and reality intrudes once more.

The trilogy concludes in The Lights Go On Again (1993), which focuses on Gavin rather than Norah.  Beginning in late 1944 and stretching to the summer of 1945, the book focuses on Gavin’s reaction to the end of the war and the knowledge that he will soon have to return to a country and a family he doesn’t remember.  Norah he knows and loves but he can’t remember much of his mother or father, his two elder sisters, or his grandfather.  He has grown up in Toronto, sounds like a Canadian, and knows what it is like to live in a mansion in Rosedale, where there is always enough money for good clothes and endless numbers of toys.  He has enjoyed trips across the country and summers with the “cousins” at Gairloch.  He loves Aunt Florence and Aunt Mary and the thought of being sent away from them to stay with strangers, even his parents, fills him with dread.

Then the chance arrives for Aunt Florence to adopt him, for Gavin to stay in Canada forever, and he has to make the choice between the life he knows with people he loves and the unknown, where he ‘belongs’.  Norah is thrilled to be going home – five years in Canada has not dulled her longing for England – but Gavin is tortured by his conflicting loyalties.  To be separated from his sister is frightening, but how can he leave Aunt Florence and Aunt Mary, and all his friends at school, not to mention his dog Bos?

Even more than the other books, The Lights Go On Again focuses on the extreme differences between the Stokeses and the Ogilvies and the question of where is right for Norah and Gavin.  During the war, the Ogilvies offered safety but with it the kinds of opportunities Norah and Gavin would never have encountered even during peacetime in England.  They traded their lower middle class life in England for one of unusual privilege in Canada.  Now, they have the chance to retain all that – the promise of the best schools, a university education, and a portion of the Ogilvie estate when Aunt Florence dies – but what do they owe their family in England?  Is it better for Gavin to be with the people he already loves and who can offer him everything, or with the people he is related to but doesn’t remember?  The decision is easy for Norah, who has always viewed their stay in Canada as a sort of exile and prayed for the chance to return home, but Gavin, only ten years old, struggles to decide whether home means Canada or England.

Throughout the trilogy, Pearson does a wonderful job of balancing historical detail with universal childhood themes.  An eight-year old picking up the books for the first time might be most interested in Norah’s struggles at her new school, or Gavin’s experiences at the hands of a bully, but, like Gavin and Norah, can’t help but be touched by the details of the war that pervade each book.  This may be a young reader’s first brush with the Second World War, the way he or she first learns of wartime evacuees, rationing, prisoner of war camps, and V-2 rockets, and Pearson incorporates the details remarkably well – far less clumsily than most adult historical fiction writers, actually.  For me, this sparked a lifelong curiousity about wartime Britain that still drives much of my reading.  But, most importantly, these books left me with an appreciation and expectation of balanced storytelling.  Pearson does not tell simple stories and there is nothing simple about her characters, which is what makes these books just as satisfying to read now as when I first encountered them eighteen years ago.

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