Doreen, by Barbara Noble, tells the story of a nine-year-old girl who is evacuated from a London slum during WW2, and cared for by a well-to-do couple in the country. In the few short months she is there, she is torn between love of this new life, offering undreamed-of opportunities, and love of her mother and the old, known world. The pull between ‘Mum’ and ‘Them’ is emphasised by the way her name is pronounced: she is Doreen at home, and Doreen in the country. The adults on each side of the divide, believe their way will be best for Doreen – but ultimately they all acknowledge that she fulfills an emotional need in their own lives. And if she stays in the country and learns to ‘better’ herself, will it equip her to cope with life when she returns to the East End?
I bought it because I was curious to see the ‘other side’ of evacuation. My mother was brought up on a kind of smallholding, in a small town near London, and an entire school was moved to the area to escape the bombs in the East End. Like many others, her family took in evacuees, and Mum, who was 12 when war broke out, attended their school, staying until she was 16 (instead of leaving at 14 as she would have done at the local school). Because they were so close to London, sometimes the evacuees’ mothers visited, and sometimes the girls would catch a train to Waterloo to spend a weekend with their loved ones, taking Mum with them. Like Doreen, she found cconflict between two very different worlds, but in her case it was London and the people she met there who opened her eyes to new things and new ideas.
Anyway, back to Doreen. She and her mother, Mrs Rawlings, live in two rooms at the top of a dilapidated house, with a shared gas stove and sink on the landing. Doreen is small, pale, polite and well spoken, but very quiet – rather an insignificent child. However, when she smiles (which isn’t often), her face comes alive. Her mother, an office cleaner, is large, dour and joyless, but she doesn’t have much to be joyful about. The one bright thing in her life is her daugher, and she loves her fiercely – so much so that she cannot bear to send Doreen away when the school is evacuated. No other arrangemts for Doreen’s education seem to have been made, and she spends her time time alone in the flat, accompanying her mother to work, or playing with a friend who has also remained in London. I’m not sure I like Mrs Rawlings much, but I had to admire her because life has dealt her a rough hand, but nevertheles she’s proud and independent, and loves her daughter, and works hard scratching a living for the two of them as best she can.
Then the brief lull of the ‘Phoney War’ comes to an end, the bombs start falling, and as the unrelenting terror of the Blitz continues, night after night, Mrs Rawlings realises that London is no longer a safe place for her young daughter. One morning a secretary in the offices spots her crying, and comes to the rescue. It is agreed that Doreen will stay with Miss Osborne’s brother Geoffrey and his wife Francie, who cannot have a child of their own. It seems to be an ideal solution: Doreen adjusts surpisingly quickly, does well at school and makes friends. The Osbornes love her, and she loves them – and therein lies part of the problem, because her mother regards the Osbornes as a threat to her own relationship with the child, and fears Doreen will get ideas above her station.
Things take a turn for the worse when Doreen’s soldier father (who abandoned his wife and child years before) appears on the scene, decides her new life is ‘not suitable’ and takes her away, followed by the frantic Osbornes who rush to London to tell Mrs Rawlings what hs happened.. There are some some graphic accounts accounts of war-torn London. with people packed into tube stations during air raids, and the incomprehensible scale of the damage above ground. The couple take a taxi across London, and find their route blocked by a trestle barrier. “Behind the barrier, a giant with a giant bag of grey dust had apparently emptied the contents all over the houses on either side, Tiles, glass and miscellaneous rubbish choked the surface of the road, and further down, the inevitable gap, broken tooth in ruined mouth, showed where the bomb had landed,” Noble writes.
There are other disturbing images of the devastation, like the burned-out warehouse where Doreen and her mother used to shelter in a basement during air raids – now nothing is left but the ‘menacing’ girders. However, what stayed in my mind was the empty window in Doreen’s home there has been no glass for three or four months, Mrs Rawlings reveals, in flat, matter-of-fact tones, She doesn’t explain any further, but it’s implicitly understood that replacing the glass is pointless, because it will only be shattered by falling bombs again, and again, and again.
But what really shocked me was the belief of Doreen’s parents that everyone knows their place and must accept their lot. They don’t want Doreen to be better educated and better informed, with the chance of a better life. Mr Rawlings tells his estranged wife: “You’d have done better sending her away to people of her own station.” And Mrs Rawlings is of the same mind. “She’s got to live the life she was born to,” she says. “The war won’t last for ever, but I’ll never be able to do much more for her than what I do now. She’ll have to face up to that.”
I guess their attitude was typical of the time, just as no-one asks Doreen what she wants to do. The only person who considers the girl’s thoughts about her future is Mr Osborne’s sister. “It was on the tip of Helen’s tongue to ask her if she wanted to go back, but she decided that this was an injudicious question, whatever the reply, and she said nothing,.”
I really enjoyed this book, and the way the author reveals the back stories of characters, so you can see how their experiences shaped them into the people they are now. She’s very good at getting inside people’s heads and giving different points of view – the child Doreen, the Osbornes, Mrs Rawlings. The dilemma of Doreen’s future is not something easily resolved: you know the outcome will bring heartache for someone, and I felt so much for the characters I couldn’t say whether the final decision was right or wrong.
It’s published by the ever-wondeful Persephone Books, who have moved to Bath.