Death and the maiden

Nine Bawden: Carrie’s War
Introduction by Michael Morpurgo
Virago Modern Classics 2017 (1973)

Guilt is a terrible thing. And when it’s brought about by such a tenuous belief as sympathetic magic, the sense of culpability can overwhelm—even when there may be no actual cause-and-effect involved between an act and what happens subsequently. Such is the case with Carrie when, as an adult, she revisits the South Wales mining community where she was evacuated during the Second World War and where she has to confront fears engendered thirty years before.

As with many child evacuees Carrie and her younger brother Nick are separated from her widowed mother, sent to the Valleys while their mother relocates to Scotland for the war’s duration. They stay with the odious Mr Evans and his anxious sister Aunty Lou in a bleak mining village (based on Blaengarw, north of Bridgend, which is where the author was herself evacuated to). Nothing they do seems to ingratiate themselves with the self-righteous bullying Mr Evans, who rules his little domain with spite and parsimony.

Luckily there are altogether more friendly people to leaven their existence: Albert Sandwich, another evacuee who lodges with Norfolk-born Hepzibah Green and the child-like Mister Johnny, whom Nick instantly befriends. These all live outside the village at an old farmhouse called Druid’s Bottom, just within sight of the railway line; it’s the home of the now widowed Mrs Gotobed, estranged sister of Mr Evans.

And so the scene is set for the inevitable misunderstandings, conflicts and possible tragedy, as seen through the eyes of the twelve-year-old, and as remembered by her adult self.

Carrie’s War is every bit as brilliant as its reputation suggests. It is a poignant reminder of how childhood can be blighted by the inconsiderate and incomprehensible actions of adults, and even more so in an age where children were suffered to be seen but not heard. When delights come her way — a welcoming kitchen, a cuddle, an unexpected picnic — she grabs and relishes them while she can, but the contrast between these and the treading-on-eggshells consequent on Mr Evans’ constant negativity is sharp and terrible. Druid’s Bottom, and the earby Druid’s Grove, also hold contrary emotions for her — sometimes comfort, other times fear — for along with the motherly Hepzibah and innocent Mister Johnny is a woman very much like Miss Havisham, one with secrets of her own, plus an ancient relic which may or may not be cursed.

Carrie’s instinct is to look for the best in human nature, to try and give people the benefit of the doubt (an instinct her brother refuses to yield to in the face of Mr Evans’ hypocrisy), which all renders the unfolding drama so heartbreaking. When Carrie does commit an act of desperation, the subsequent disaster — which she believes is her fault — brings her to a nadir in her young life. Which makes the final denouement even more powerful, one that I have to confess resulted in the shedding a tear or two.

The war that is Carrie’s is only partly related her experience of those terrible years when the outside world went mad; mostly it describes the conflict that she encounters in that valley. It’s a fitting coincidence that the Blaengarw that Nina Bawden herself knew was where the words of the famous Welsh hymn Calon Lân were composed by Daniel James, for Calon Lân translates as ‘a pure heart’. Love is the idée fixe that runs through this novel: love given, love taken away, love lost and love regained.

A post for the 2019 Wales Readathon, Dewithon19

18 thoughts on “Death and the maiden

  1. This is obviously not a trivial read.
    Ever since reading Richmal Crompton’s ‘William’ books, I have been fascinated by the evacuees and their plight in being transplanted to a strange environment.

    1. Depends what you mean by trivial, I suppose, Leslie; it’s a serious but not difficult read, as befits a children’s story, though of course very different in mood from the William books.

  2. I remember reading this when I was a child. As you say, every bit as wonderful as its reputation suggests. One of those books you’d like to recommend over and over again! Thanks for the reminder, Chris

  3. Pingback: Wales Readathon 2019 – Book Jotter

  4. I loved this as a child too and the t.v. series which I watched again a few years ago with my own children. I must get myself a copy and have a re read!

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  6. earthbalm

    My enthusiasm for the book is strengthened by using it as a class book several times. There are several other NB books I’ve used in a similar context.

  7. What an account! It spurs me to take on an ambitious research project. A cousin of my mother’s who lives nearby was showing me photos of my great-grandparents (or great-great–I get lost in the great’s), who were interned during WWI because they were German. Wisconsin apparently had several internment camps, even among the farming communities. Americans often recall the Japanese internment camps of WWII, but this was the first time I’d heard of WWI’s camps, let alone their ties to my bloodline. Somehow, in some way, I’d like to find out more.

    1. Each and everybody has a story to tell, don’t they, and I try to never make assumptions about people’s beliefs and experiences and family histories. Yours sounds fascinating, Jean.

  8. I love this review (and the photograph at the end of it). It reminds me that I must go back and read _Carrie’s War_. I have a copy, but either I have seen the television version and never finished the book, or read the book and have forgotten. In either case, both the story and Nina Bawden interest me, and your commentary has rekindled that interest. Thank you, O Prolific One!

    1. Thanks, Josna (especially for the sobriquet!). Glad you liked the photo, slightly bleached out from a snap of trees on a local walk and chosen to suggest the Druid’s Grove in the book.

      I do hope you get to read the book. I have another novel of Bawden’s to read, plus her autobiography, as I’ve become intrigued by her story.

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