The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham first published in 1938 and this edition graced with perhaps one of my favourite Persephone endpapers, 'Arrowhead' taken from a contemporaneous fabric designed by New York-based John Little.
The design considerably scaled down for the endpaper, but timeless (I'd buy yards of it even now) and a perfect choice for a book with such a rural setting.
I can only begin to imagine how completely I would have escaped into this book as a child, and though my original copy is lost I remember the cover very clearly indeed and I probably wanted my mum to cook something in a hay box, just to see, in fact I have an urge to stick a rabbit casserole in one right now and see if it works.
Hay mark 5 and recheck in twelve hours.
So the Dunnet parents fly off at a moment's notice to see to the ailing grandmother somewhere in Europe, telling the children that they are perfectly old enough to look after themselves, or rather that thirteen-year old Susan and eleven-year old Bob are quite capable of looking after nine year-old twins Joseph and Samuel and baby of the family six-year old Alice. I've specified the ages because what happens next would make any parent's hair stand on end but clearly more pressing issues grabbing the headlines in 1938 when the book was written.
Quickly evicted from their rented cottage the children set up home in a nearby barn where the adventure rapidly becomes a saga of survival against starvation and the attentions of the deeply unpleasant and disparaging district visitor (to uncomfortably akin to my own profession for my liking) and the local busybodies who threaten children's homes and adoptions every time they spot a dirty hankie.
Yes clean hankies, clothes, faces, hands and nails feature strongly as an outward indicator of well-being and poor Susan, readily slipping into the maternal role, has her work cut out keeping on top of it all, getting up at 4am to do the washing before getting everyone up and ready for school.
Bob settles into the requisite fatherly shoes, collecting wood and expecting a meal on the table and suggesting that Susan darns his socks.
And bless Susan, with the patience of Mother Teresa and the qualities of a well-trodden door mat does the whole lot with a constant and cheery smile though thankfully the occasional moment of rebellion and acerbic comment is allowed to poke through.
The adults who should know better are mostly vile and uncaring towards the children who seem to take all the punches on the chin and come out fighting in order to stay together, even the twins pledging saintly behaviour in their quest to become choir boys and earn 5s a month.
Jacqueline Wilson's preface rightly flags up the bizarre nature of the parental strand of the plot. Out of the country by page six, Bob attacking the cold cuts by page seven because 'men always carve' and the children not unduly concerned by their parents' disappearance when the flight seems to go missing. Something of a weak and feeble reunion occurs at the end of the book (sorry to spoil but yes the parents are found) but I would think that matters little to young readers. The best books as I recall seemed to remove the parents from the equation any which way to give the children a free run at life.
Eleanor Graham interestingly the founding editor at Puffin books prior to Kaye Webb reissuing The Children Who Lived in the Barn under the Puffin name in 1955 but also instrumental in establishing literature for children as a genre in its own right.
'Very little critical or scholarly attention was paid to children's books
before the 1930s, much rubbish was sold for children, and the good that
came their way did so unheralded and often by chance. Graham was one of
the first to see that a critical apparatus was needed for the
evaluation of children's books... During the late 1920s the first children's rooms in public
libraries were established and Graham learned a great deal from watching
children and librarians select books. She was convinced that children
deserved books of the highest quality, and was ahead of her time in
believing that any child was capable of responding to great writing, no
matter how underprivileged his or her background.'
(Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry)
It occurred to me that, with its original 1938 publication, I could easily be reading a book written as the portents of war loomed overhead and here was a fine example of resilience in adversity and children taking responsibility for their own welfare that may well be needed in the months and years to come.So it's off to Cornflower for tea now and I can't wait to find out whether it's been prepared in a haybox cooker or not and just in case you feel the urge, here's a favourite website of mine and the instructions for one someone has very kindly made earlier.
Karen and I are clearing the book commitment decks and taking an extended tea break for the summer but will be back with our shared teas in September when we will be very appropriately reading and eating our way through A Fortnight in September by R.C.Sherriff.