Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

crooked adm d e stevensonCrooked Adam by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1942. This edition: Fontana, 1974. Paperback. 219 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

You have to hand it to D.E. Stevenson. Even if she didn’t know anything at all about her subject (mental illness in Rochester’s Wife, for example) it didn’t stop her from taking a good old swing at it, cheerfully glossing over the complicated bits by having her characters tell each other, “It’s too specialized to explain. Just trust me.” And of course, they do.

In this case it is schoolmaster Adam Southey who is the clueless one. His headmaster, Samuel Cooke, is a prominent scientist who is working on a secret war machine, a kind of death ray which focus an ultraviolet beam of light on an object – say, an enemy airplane – and causes it to burst into flames. “A Death Ray!” exclaims Adam, only to be lectured by his superior that this is inaccurate: “It’s too specialized to explain to a simple soul like you. Just trust me.”

It is early in World War II, and Adam is disappointed that His Majesty’s Army has no use for him, due to a childhood injury which has left one of his legs shorter than the other. Despite this physical handicap, Adam is fit and strong, and can swing along at a great rate, which is about to come in very handy very soon. He surprises a suspicious intruder attempting to get a look at Cooke’s secret weapon, and ends up accompanying the van carrying the machine to a secret army testing base in Scotland, with some interesting adventures on the way, including an attempted hijacking and a stint of camouflage with a travelling circus.

Once in Scotland, with Marvelous Invention to Change the Course of the War almost ready to demonstrate, Adam’s adventures get even more exciting, as he stumbles upon a Cleverly Disguised Nest of Nazi Spies (complete with submarine access to a secret tunnel), teams up with the local shepherds and fishermen to foil the Wicked Teutonic Menace, and ultimately finds True Love.

Despite the simplistic tone of the whole thing, written in a “Gosh! Golly!” schoolboy-adventure-tale-genre sort of way, it is rather an enjoyable romp, and the groaning faux-pas-by-sincere-author moments add to the charming vintage atmosphere. The hero is sweet and true-blue all the way through (“Crooked Adam”, as one of his schoolboy charges murmurs in a scene-setting aside to a friend, is really one of those double entendre nicknames which mean the exact opposite – gimpy leg aside, Adam is straight as they come) and we can only hope that his serendipitous love interest will live up to his nobleness, once the war is safely over.

Though this adventure started off rather slowly for me – this is my second go at reading it, as the first try fizzled out – once I pushed past the “I can’t explain my invention; you’ll just have to take my word for it that it’s marvelous” bit by Dr. Cooke and wide-eyed Adam’s acceptance that he’s too dumb to grasp the complexities of science I started to grow rather fond of our sterling-natured hero, and cheerfully went along with the tale until the heroic and neatly tied up end. I’d noticed before that D.E. Stevenson often has no qualms about cold-bloodedly eliminating her bad eggs, and Crooked Adam proved no exception, with the author showing more sympathy with the German Nazis versus the turncoat Englishmen, who get their (fatal) comeuppance.

Yes, one might safely shelve this one with the propaganda novels, I think.

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war stories gregory clarkWar Stories by Gregory Clark ~ 1964. This edition: Ryerson Press, 1968. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7700-6027-7. 171 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Born in 1892 in Toronto, Ontario, Gregory Clark was of perfect age to fight in the Great War, heading to Europe in 1916, at the age of twenty-four. Clark entered the fray as a lieutenant, and exited a major. In the trenches and out of them – Clark received the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry” at Vimy Ridge – the young man remembered what he had witnessed, the horror and the gallantry and the moments of respite and delight, to be shared later with his audience of newspaper readers as he took up journalism in the post-war years.

Too old to take active part in World War II, Gregory Clark none the less went overseas once again and pushed his way into the thick of the action, fulfilling a role as a front-line war correspondent, and receiving an Order of the British Empire for his services. Again, his experiences found their way into his short, chatty periodical articles published in the following decades. Clark’s son Murray was killed in action in 1944 while serving with the Regina Rifles, but there is no mention of that personal loss here in War Stories; Clark keeps that particular emotion well buried.

War Stories contains a selection of thirty-eight anecdotes, three to five pages in length, about a wide array of Gregory Clark’s personal experiences. Though the tone throughout  is upbeat and frequently humorous – War Stories won the Leacock award for humour in 1965, which rather surprises me, for funny as these anecdotes sometimes are, there is a sombre tone always present – Clark makes it very clear what his opinions are as to the brutality of what the soldiers and civilians went through.

These stories laud the bravery (and the frequent giddy foolishness) of the farm boys and office clerks and travelling salesmen who find themselves caught up in circumstances beyond their most vivid nightmares, fated to kill and, frequently, be horribly maimed, and wastefully killed, merely because of the circumstance of the time of their birth. Something I noticed is that there is not much sympathy shown here for the soldiers of the “other side”; Clark’s thoughts are ever for his own, and he was reportedly a fiercely protective officer of the men under his charge.

All is not muck and death and destruction though. Interludes of inactivity brought forth pranks and hi-jinks, while there were times of repose behind the lines, time for memorable meals and quiet conversation, and musings on what was going to come after, if there was going to be an after.

An appropriate book for this Remembrance Day weekend, this time of sober reflection. Clark reports the realities, but he persists as well in highlighting the lighter moments, the bits of sanity in a world of war.

A good read.

And a much more eloquent review of this book, well worth a click-over, may be found at Canus Humorous.

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when jays fly to barbmo margaret baldersonWhen Jays Fly to Bárbmo by Margaret Balderson ~ 1968. This edition: Oxford University Press, 1970. Softcover. ISBN: 19-272010-4. 220 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Bárbmo is the mystical place in Lapland folklore where the migrating birds fly away to; some never go there, like the jays. The riddle of the intriguing title is made clear in the final pages of this engrossing historical fiction novel.

Fourteen-year-old Ingeborg lives on the remote Norwegian island of Draugoy, where her family household, consisting of her widowed father, an aunt, and elderly hired help Per (an obviously troubled man with a mysterious past), eke out a precarious but modestly comfortable living through farming and fishing. But even their small and isolated society is about to feel the effects of events in the greater world. It is 1940, and Hitler’s troops are advancing through Europe and into neutral Norway, with an aim to annex Norway’s ice-free shipping ports and to ensure crucial supplies of iron ore from Sweden which was handled through the Norwegian shipping system.

Norway falls under German control without much resistance; the royal family and the government escape to England to form a government-in-exile for the next five years; thousands of young Norwegian men begin to filter out of their homeland to train with Allied forces in other parts of Europe, and in Scotland and England; and as the years turn over even the farthest settlements are occupied by troops of the Wehrmacht.

This is the greater historical background to Ingeborg’s story, and against it the more detailed personal events of the novel take place. Our young heroine struggles with her place in her family, fiercely resenting her aunt’s attempts at turning her into a “proper” Norwegian housewife; Ingeborg would rather be out roaming the woods with her dog Benne, or out in the barn with the animals, or sitting with Per and badgering him for tales of his travels. Her father treats her with deep love but yet with a patronizing attitude, never letting Ingeborg forget that she will never be a part of his man’s world. He refuses to discuss her mother with her; there is some great mystery there which all of the adults skirt meticulously around, as if protecting Ingeborg from something which will harm her.

Being a properly traditional bildungsroman, Ingeborg tenaciously discovers the secrets of her origin. She faces and overcomes the loss of everything she holds dear, and in the end discovers who she really is and where she really belongs.

This novel is short and aimed at a juvenile audience, so by necessity glosses over large periods of time and merely hints at some events, but the author pauses at perfectly timed intervals to go into the exquisite details of Ingeborg’s inner and outer lives; the novel is beautifully written. The horrors of war are unflinchingly discussed; the evils of the Nazi regime and the atrocities surrounding the scorched earth policy of the retreat from northern Norway are tellingly depicted.

If there is any weakness to this story, it is that the realities spoken of – the historical facts – are so brutal as to be almost unbelievable, making accompanying research a necessity – heads up to those using this novel as part of a social studies/history curriculum.  Some details of the story are also perhaps a bit too lightly touched on, but appropriately so for the intended youthful audience.

But don’t overdo the background research; let the story tell itself, because it is first and foremost just that, a personal story of a quest for self-understanding. The dramatic events which unfold are viewed through a single set of eyes, that of the young narrator.

The seasons of the Scandinavian northland, the months without sun, the joy of returning daylight, the nomadic travels of the reindeer-herding Laplanders and their yearly brief relationship with the farmers and fishermen of the summer ranges are all wonderfully depicted.

This novel received the Children’s Book of the Year Award in 1969 in the author’s native Australia, and was a runner-up for the UK’s 1968 Carnegie Medal. It is also something of a one-of for the author. From the quality of the writing I had hoped to find some similar later works, but nothing comes to light except for a few light fictions for younger children published in the early 1970s.

A snippet of biography found online explains the author’s familiarity with the setting of her story, and her obvious passion for the sharing of the brutal experiences of the rural Norwegians during the German occupation.

Australian children’s book author Margaret Balderson first made a name for herself with When Jays Fly to Bárbmo, a coming-of-age story about Ingeborg, a Norwegian girl who experiences the German invasion of Norway during World War II. The fear of invasion, and then its traumatic reality, provoke the young woman into a soul-searching quest to validate her own personal identity. This debut novel won awards across the English-speaking world.

Balderson was born and raised in Australia, but in 1963 she left for Europe. She settled for two years in Norway, where she worked in the winters and explored the countryside in the brief northern summers. In the Arctic nation, according to Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers contributor H. M. Saxby, “she experienced in a deeply personal way the innate rhythms of that land as expressed through its seasons. In particular, the Dark Time of the long Arctic winter became for her symbolic of an oppression of spirit which evaporates with the miracle of each spring.” Balderson’s experience of that cycle is reflected in Ingeborg’s life, as she passes through the darkness of living under occupation and emerges into freedom and adulthood.

A grand example of a “living book” which will be of interest to homeschool families and history teachers. I would say that it is suitable for ages 10 or so to adult. Highly recommended.

My edition is the OUP softcover, published in 1970, and it is graced by a wonderful cover illustration by one of my very favourite literary artists, Victor Ambrus. The first chapter heading is also illustrated, but sadly the rest of the volume is without decoration. I wonder if the original edition has more pictures? If so, I would love to get my hands on one…

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The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge ~ 1941. This edition: Coronet, 1975. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-00396-0. 256 pages.

My rating: 8/10. Rating based on the author’s body of work; I’ve read most of her books, and thought this one was one of the “upper end” in accessibility and lack of long, rambling, philosophical-religious side paths. I enjoyed it.

This is a deeply poignant story, written in the early years of World War II when the outcome was still very much in question, and the author and her fellow countrymen, along with her characters in the novel, were steeling themselves to bravely face their possibly horrific fates under a sea invasion of England. As she penned this novel, Elizabeth Goudge was living in a small country cottage near the village of Marldon, Devonshire with her frail, elderly mother; their days and nights were punctuated by the droning of fighter planes and bombers passing overhead, and the sound of explosions as German bombs exploded in the nearby coastal cities of Torquay and Paignton. Though Marldon itself escaped direct bombing, the inhabitants were extremely aware of their very real danger, and the stresses of living in wartime are very evident in this novel.


Miss Dolores Brown is in a bad place, both literally and figuratively. Her home and source of income, the boarding house she has established in the family home she inherited upon the death of her parents, has been requisitioned by the government for wartime use. A relocation to London and attempts to find a job have proven fruitless; no one much needs or wants a quiet, unassertive forty-year-old woman with only her domestic skills to recommend her. Her friends and relatives are tired of hosting her; she needs to move on. Now news has come that her house and all of her stored possessions have been destroyed in a bombing raid. A train ticket to travel to stay with a relation for a day and a few coins remain between Miss Brown and utter destitution; her predominant emotion is an overwhelming fear of what will happen to her now.

As she sits outwardly proper but inwardly forlorn on a bench in front of the London Free Library, a strain of music catches her ear. Somewhere nearby someone is playing the violin, and Miss Brown rises to find the source of the music, and comes upon Jo Isaacson playing for coins in the street. Miss Brown impulsively puts one of her last shillings in the fiddler’s hat; they have a short exchange, and she goes on her way cheered and encouraged by the brief encounter.

Mr. Isaacson, born in England but musically trained in Leipzig and then settled on the Continent, was once a celebrated musician.  Now fallen on hard times both through his predilection for drinking and the growing persecution of the Jews which forced his flight from Germany, Austria and then Italy, Mr. Isaacson fears that even his old homeland England will reject him next. He has determined to earn a shilling to use in the gas fire in his room to commit suicide; due to Miss Brown’s impetuous generosity, the means to his end is now at hand.

Through a series of coincidences and under the sheltering hand of fate, Jo Isaacson does not use the shilling for his fatal final intention. He ends spending some of it for taking his landlady’s two small children to the train; they are being evacuated to the relative safety of the country. Ending up on the train himself, Mr. Isaacson has set in motion a series of events which will lead to his ultimate attainment of his longed-for place of peace.

In another part of the train, Miss Brown has just met and been taken under the wing of a prosperous historian, Mr. Birley. Mr. Birley has been to London to try to engage a housekeeper for his stately home, Birley Castle, and its household of men: himself, nephews Richard and Stephen, respectively a dashing fighter pilot and an emotionally tormented pacifist conscientious objector, and butler Boulder and gardener Pratt. Not to mention the elderly Alsatian dog Argos, and Steven’s fiery horse, Golden Eagle. But once Miss Brown has unburdened herself of her tale of woe to sympathetic Mr. Birley, he looks at her with calculating surmise. Could she, would she… ?

She certainly could and would. Bucked up by sympathy, a substantial dinner and the prospects of a job, Miss Brown brightens up considerably, and optimistically tackles the daunting task of bringing order to a heedless masculine world.

Meanwhile the two daughters of Mr. Isaacson’s landlady are also on their way to Torhaven, location of Birley Castle, to be billeted with a foster family there, as is Mr. Isaacson himself, who has been taken under the wing of Mr. Holly, the railway guard who discovered him collapsed in the baggage car after the express train left London. Mr. Holly offers him a chance to get settled and find a job “somewhere near the kiddies” – he has mistakenly thought that the children Mr. Isaacson was escorting are his own.

Add in Prunella, the lovely doctor’s daughter who has been the romantic interest of first peaceful Stephen and now exciting Richard, and elderly Mrs. Heather, endlessly smiling inhabitant of the cottage at the Castle gates, and you have all the players assembled on the stage.

Elizabeth Goudge loves to bring her characters together by impossibly convenient coincidence, and this novel is a prime example. The two little girls are billeted at the Castle, and Miss Brown eventually meets Mr. Isaacson; they are united in common memory and relief at each finding at least a temporary haven. Mr. Isaacson is modestly successful as a street musician and music teacher, and Miss Brown has settled nicely into her niche as the housekeeper of the Castle.

Mr. Birley returns to his creative solitude untroubled by household concerns; Stephen prepares for his upcoming hearing to allow him to avoid military service by working at rescue and recovery in the bombed sections of London; Richard comes and goes between missions, dallying with the passionate Prue whenever chance allows; Miss Brown wins over the initially hostile Boulder by her gentle good nature and hard work; Pratt gets on with things much as usual; Mrs. Heather keeps smiling.

Tragedy and turmoil turn this newly peaceful world upside down, and the responses of all concerned show the best qualities that lie buried in everyone to be brought forth under adversity, another favourite Elizabeth Goudge theme.

This condensation leaves out everything that makes this book so appealing: the glimpses into the inner thoughts and deeper motivations of every character involved. Stephen is handled particularly well as he wrestles with his decision to be a non-combatant; his brother and uncle are fiercely and actively patriotic, and though they treat him with respect and affection it is clear that they are impatient rather than understanding of his dilemma.

The character of the quiet and dedicated Miss Brown serves to highlight the divisions and expectations of the class system, soon to be changed forever by the new equality of the war and post-war years. She feels something more than subservient and feudal affection for the Birley family; they however regard her as an appreciated and respected but somehow not-quite-equal being. Miss Brown hides her feelings well; her pride lets her go forward with head held high even when the oblivious Birleys unintentionally disregard her occasional attempts at a deeper friendship.

Mr. Isaacson resolves his feelings of anger towards the world and its unfairness and is able to move onward in his life. (And I would like to mention that I thought he was one of the most awkward characters, as his creator did not seem sure of how she should portray him – he is inconsistent throughout, one moment gruff and earthy, and the next full of academically poetic musings.)

Elizabeth Goudge likes to sort out her couples and pair them off in their proper order. Children are inevitably provided with the best possible homes; damaged marriages are salvaged; family rifts are healed; happy spinsters and bachelors regain their peaceful solitude and worthwhile occupations. The Castle on the Hill runs true to form, but it has much to recommend it in its thoughtful passages and articulate characters. The setting is lovingly described, and most of the characters are fully realized and allowed their chance to show their full and complex humanity.

Given that the book was written in wartime, in the very time that it portrays, it acts as an interesting and quite readable realistic-idealistic period piece. The horrors and tragedies of the war are true to life; the human response of the heroes and heroines is certainly the ideal.

The last few pages have numerous references to the comforts of religion and the role of God in human lives, but this is not at all a “preachy” book.  I thought it was one of the less rambling and more focussed adult novels by this often-underrated writer. I could definitely see shades of some of the characters of Goudge’s most well-known and beloved books, the Damerosehay novels (The Bird in the Tree – 1940, The Herb of Grace – 1948, and The Heart of the Family – 1953) which were written during and after the war years; The Castle on the Hill is something of a dress rehearsal, though it stands alone as a story complete unto itself, with characters whom we never again meet, though their soul sisters and brothers reappear in different guise in her many other books.

Note: I am here including, with some reluctance, the cover shot from the 1975 paperback re-release. The cover at the beginning is from an earlier edition. I am not sure who these illustrated people are supposed to portray; in my opinion they do not represent actual characters of the story, but instead have strayed onto the cover from an Eaton’s mail-order catalogue, Misses and Gents section, circa the polyester era! Quite one of the ugliest covers possible for this book, and not at all indicative of the content. A dire reminder not to judge a book by its outward appearance!

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