As a very small child in the 1970s, I was vaguely uncertain as to whether the Second World War was still ongoing. It seemed to be referenced everywhere: on TV, we watched Dad’s Army, Secret Army, Danger UXB and The World At War. The shelves of Mr Murray’s newsagents were stocked with Commando and Victor comics, and my Mum – only in her mid-thirties at this point – often recounted her childhood memories of Anderson shelters, and tanks rolling through Middlesbrough town centre. The war seemed tangible and “of the now”; a vivid scar on both the psychology of the nation and its still-recovering landscapes. We all knew the derelict buildings, the wastelands and water-filled craters, the everyday reminders of where the bombs had left their mark.
The war left its mark on Carrie Willow, too. A wistful, recently widowed fortysomething at the beginning of this book, holidaying in Wales with her three young children, she finds herself revisiting both the overgrown valley that provided respite during a traumatic spell as a wartime evacuee, and the feelings of grief and guilt that have dogged her ever since. Nervously, Carrie begins to tell her children the story that forms the main body of the book: how, thirty years earlier, she and her younger brother Nick had been evacuated to a rather down-at-heel (and curiously unnamed) Welsh mining town, becoming inextricably embroiled in the fortunes of two very contrasting households.
And those two feuding families are at the heart of the story. Carrie and Nick find themselves living with dour grocer Samuel Evans and his meek, put-upon sister Lou… and oh, is there any more archaic a 20th century domestic arrangement than two adult siblings sharing a house? Evans aggressively dominates his younger sister, his devout Christian faith manifesting itself as doctrine of extreme austerity that extends to any who cross the threshold. “Dirt and sloppy habits are an insult to the Lord,” the children are told, forbidden from visiting their bedrooms during the daytime for fear of wearing out the stair carpet.
As Christmas approaches, however, Carrie and Nick find respite. Dispatched to fetch a goose from Druid’s Bottom, the woodland valley farm occupied by the Evans’ ailing (and ostracised) older sister Mrs Gotobed, they find themselves almost passing through a theological and ideological portal. As they descend the valley at dusk, Carrie even feels it: “Deep in the trees or deep in the earth… something old and huge and nameless.” She hears the landscape sigh – “a slow, dry whisper” – and there are later suggestions that Druid’s Bottom still bears vestiges of the “old religion”. This manifests itself in the form of Mrs Gotobed’s housekeeper Hepzibah Green, a warm-hearted “wise woman” who welcomes the children into a haven of warmth, food and hospitality.
Mrs Gotobed herself, disowned by Mr Evans for marrying into the wealthy mine-owning family that he blames for their father’s death, is magnificently languid and indulgent. Terminally ill, and largely confined to her bedroom in Druid’s Bottom, her dying mission is to wear, in turn, each of the 29 opulent ballgowns that her late husband bought for her throughout their marriage. A distant cousin, Mr Johnny, is also resident in the house: a young man with severe learning difficulties, barely able to speak, dismissed an as “idiot” by Mr Evans but cared for at Druid’s Bottom by a surrogate family keen to keep him secluded from an uncaring 1940s society that would otherwise have him “locked up.”
Druid’s Bottom’s has its own resident evacuee, too: the bookish, iconoclastic (and magnificently-named) Albert Sandwich. Hints of deeper feelings begin to flourish between Albert and Carrie, further pulling her and the increasingly rebellious Nick away from their official adopted carers, and creating increased tension between the households. Tensions exacerbated when Lou finds romance with a billeted American soldier, leaving her “as good as damned” – at least according to her furious elder brother. Who, by this stage, is actually beginning to elicit our sympathy as an increasingly isolated figure: convinced that his frugality and over-protectiveness is for the benefit of all, he is unable to comprehend the hostility it provokes in those nearest to him.
And if the book has a central theme, it is indeed the influence of our respective belief systems on our lives, and – indeed – the lives of those closest to us. Recurring bereavements (his parents, his wife, effectively his older sister and even his faith in the local mining community) have left Mr Evans dependent on his Christian beliefs for both support and reassurance… but equally, a curious superstition attached to Druid’s Bottom proves to be a lynchpin of the more ethereal and arcane beliefs pervading the Gotobed household – and, indeed, the source of a lifetime’s worth of guilt for Carrie. For the house plays host to a human skull, reputed to be that of an African slave who cursed Druid’s Bottom to destruction should his mortal remains ever be removed. And when a furious and confused Carrie, her spirit broken by the tempestuous feuding that follows Mrs Gotobed’s death, does just that – and in a pretty permanent way – she departs the valley convinced that her rash actions have had a devastating effect on both households.
And so, Carrie’s war stays with her. And so did the events of this book on me. Written with elegant sparseness, it’s a supremely touching depiction of childhood trauma during an tumultuous period of history, and the book’s conclusion is both redemptive and utterly, utterly heartbreaking. There is no more destructive and lingering an emotion than guilt, and the lifting of Carrie’s needlessly prolonged self-torment as her story snaps back to the contemporary 1970s provides tangible, tear-jerking relief – while leaving us unbearably sad at the wasted decades that her wartime experiences have instigated. An extraordinary book.
POINT OF ORDER: Carrie’s War has been adapted twice for TV by the BBC… once in 1974, available on DVD here:
And again in 2004, as a one-off TV movie broadcast on New Year’s Day. It’s available here:
Predictably, I’ve only seen the 1974 series, but it’s a very faithful and beautifully-made adaptation of the book, and well worth investigating.
FURTHER POINT OF ORDER: How many 20th century children’s books begin, like Carrie’s War, with the main protagonists arriving at the story’s primary location on a train? There are bonus points available for further examples.
MUSTINESS REPORT: My 1976 paperback edition has a truly classy waft of vintage must, and also a wonderful relic on the inside cover. Here, a sticker proudly declares that, in June 1977, the book was awarded by Carlisle Road Presbyterian Church’s Morning Sabbath School to Wendy Rutherford, for winning First Prize in their “Answering” competition. Exactly 43 years on… Wendy, are you out there? Get in touch.