rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Borrowed from [personal profile] nineweaving, with thanks.

This is a curate's egg of a book: parts of it are still good. Other parts not so much.

But the whole is of great historical value, because it is a contemporary account of a story that does not, I think, get told much these days. Certainly it does not get told much in America. In the U.S. one can grow up reading British children's books, and then one hears about children being evacuated to the countryside during the air raids of the Battle of Britain, but one does not hear much about the ones who were evacuated all the way to the U.S. and Canada.

Sabrina, whose diary this purports to be, and her brother James, are sent to upstate New York to stay with family friends. They are eleven and eight, old enough to know perfectly well that they may never see their parents, or England, again, and to know that the boat they travel on could be attacked, but not old enough to internalize that if the boat sinks it could kill them. It's an interesting age to have as the narrator, because of course the adults spend a fair amount of time talking over Sabrina, but also a fair amount of time talking to her, as she is a bright eleven. The intersection of what she hears and understands, hears and doesn't understand, is told and doesn't understand: this is all beautifully done.

There's the boat, which is the first half, and then there is settling into America. They are privileged children in both portions and nearly know it, privileged on the boat because they are traveling with a family friend (who is evacuating with her newborn son) and can afford to pay for a cabin, privileged on the land because they are going to friends who know their parents and are loving and generous. It goes as well as this sort of thing can go. It does not hurt them any less for that.

The problem, though, is that I cannot quite buy many of the aspects of Sabrina as narrator. She is a bit too naive, sometimes, a bit too knowing at others, and I can see too much of what the author thinks a Very Nice Girl should be like inside. And her diary is full of cute misspellings which is maddening and distracting and aggravating and just a bad idea. Things also maybe go a little too easily for them, a little too nicely. There is more than a minor touch of the Mary Sue, and also Sabrina and her brother behave a bit more rambunctiously than the way they think about things would indicate they should.

There is a good reason for that last, though, which is that the author had the opportunity to observe their outside behavior, but not their interior thoughts. She was the family friend with the baby who took them across the Atlantic, famous already as an author-- there is a moment where a Red Cross lady recognizes her and suddenly takes them all home to lunch instead of issuing them Red Cross food. Travers clearly loves these children (I am sure they were lovable) and therefore makes their faults ones the readers will, she hopes, find charming. (She is wrong.)

More of value as history than as fiction, then, I'd say, although still very readable (except those damn misspellings). Also be warned: this came out in 1941, and contains in it the attitudes towards people of color which one might regretfully expect of that era. It is not nasty-- as you may remember if you have ever read an unedited copy of Mary Poppins, Travers dealt in stereotypes which she intended to be polite and kind, rather than in Not Our Sort, Dear-- but the white people in this book have an unexamined deep sense that they are superior and that is all. Ah well, on this subject books fall into the categories of bad for its era, standard for its era, and good for its era. This is very much standard.

I am not sure why this fell thoroughly out of Children's Books That Get Reprinted when a lot of the rest of Travers still firmly sits there, but it does seem to be quite obscure. Unless everyone read it but me. It's probably the cuteness. I have no particular explanation otherwise as I was certainly given far worse things to read as a kid, and less educational. Not remotely as good as the Mary Poppins books, though.

Travers has gone onto my list of people I should read a biography of, because I find upon Googling that she did not die until, good heavens, 1996. 1899-1996, and first published by A.E., and a friend of Yeats. I had no idea. Now that must have been a life, and I am curious.


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