Friday, May 25, 2012

Back Home by Michelle Magorian

"Rusty gazed out the window at all the bombed buildings...and for a moment she felt angry at her parents for sending her away. She had a sense that something very important had happened in England, and she knew she had missed it."

"Peggy listened to the faint chimes of the church bells still ringing. So it was all over, she thought.  Now her husband could be sent home. She had lived for this moment. Now that it had come, she felt absolutely nothing."

Long about 1990 or so, my family gathered around the TV to watch a Disney Channel movie called Back Home, all about a girl returning to England after living in America as a World War 2 evacuee. My parents explained just enough of the background for me to understand what was going on. I remember being pretty well riveted by it. It was not the kind of Disney Channel movie you see today - it was a slow-moving drama in muted colors (I swear, "muted colors" is a whole style of television. If a show is in muted colors, you can pretty well guess what the show is going to be like). 

Years later I came across a copy of the 1984 Michelle Magorian book on which the movie was based and was pretty well knocked on my ass by it.

The movie was, from what I recall, a rather fateful adaptation; all of the lines that I remembered were there. I don't know if it's just that I'm older now, and understand it more, but the emotional impact of reading it as an adult knocked the wind out of me. Like a lot of 1970s/early 80s kid lit, it's a book that works on a sort of gritty realism that isn't really in style to day. But it's the emotional lives of the characters - particularly Peggy, the mother, that make it stand out. 

In 1945, Virginia "Rusty" Dickinson returns to England, where she's lived since she was 7. Now she's 12, and her memories of England are fairly hazy. She's spent the last 5 years with a real bohemian family, and is now an independent, free-spirited girl who is comfortable with being naked in public. It would have been easy, I suppose, to portray her as a sort of Pippi Longstocking/Star Girl sort of character who turns England upside-down. Maybe she imagined herself that way.

But she's returning to an England that is still rigidly class-conscious (they were still nearly 20 years from being liberated by the Beatles). The rationing (one bath a week, etc) is hard enough to get used to, but it's the stuffiness and general sense that everyone should seem miserable at all times that Rusty has trouble with, especially when she's shipped off to typical boarding school of the day. 

Rusty's story is gripping, but what really brings it to life are the side characters, such as Rusty's mother, who only feels numb when the war ends. She's glad it's over, of course, but while her husband has ben away, she's found work volunteering, working as a mechanic, and generally making herself useful in a way that her husband (and especially his old-fashioned mother) would never have allowed. She loved the work she did, the sense of accomplishment and self-reliance she got. There are hints that she had an affair.  When her husband returns, he expects things to go right back to the way they were in 1939, and can't get used to having a wife who seems like she might want to dance, or who can fix cars better than he can. She, in turn, can't stop thinking of her daughter as a seven year old, even though she can see that she's matured (this is described quite explicitly in a scene in which she sees Rusty naked and sees that she has started to grow pubic hair)

What we have here, really, is a very sophisticated portrait of England trying to re-adjust to living in peace time, and how to deal with the rather shocking idea that maybe things shouldn't go back to the way they were. The men went off to save the England they knew, and found that they could never get it back. That some people didn't WANT it back. Magorian took great care to make the adult characters just as real and three-dimensional as the kids, and to point out all of the difficulties everyone is going to have now that the war is won - a story is told that one character's first husband has been found in an Australian hospital after being reported dead before. The character has already remarried. Re-adjusting after a way is never simple, and BACK HOME doesn't pull punches, though it never, ever seems like it's trying to teach anyone anything. There's stuff about puberty, but just because it's the age Rusty is, and leaving it out would have been unrealistic, though the other girls at the boarding school are completely ignorant about sex (one thinks that talking with a boy in your pajamas means that you're going to have a baby).

But there are really no good guys or bad guys here - everyone has an understandable motivation for behaving as they do, even if it's just being a product of their own environment. Even Rusty comes to realize that part of why the other girls look down on her is that something important has happened in England, something that will define her entire generation, and she's missed it. She's never even heard a bomb going off. It's a difference between her and her neighbors that will never be resolved. I think perhaps the book is even a little unfair to the father, who might be suffering from PTSD.

BACK HOME is a work of art - at no point at all does it seem to be "written down" for children, and is a fine example of being one of those books that's only a children's book because the main character is 12 and there isn't any explicit sex (though there is some nudity, a bit of swearing, and some talk of bodily functions. These generally add to the realism). There is no attempt to pander to kids, or even to "bring things down to their level," at all.

The book was fairly popular in its day - enough to inspire a movie, at the very least - and I believe there's a recent edition in print in the UK.

This is one that I think probably COULD still come out today, but it would probably marketed strictly to libraries in the hopes that it would win the Newberry or something - an award like that (or another movie) would probably be about its only chance at making any dent, sales-wise. It would probably also be YA (the words "shitty," "ass," and "pubic," all occur), but not enough of a love story to make it much of a marketable YA these days. It's more realistic (right down to bathroom scenes) than you usually see in middle grade books today, as well as being longer and perhaps a bit more dry. The sheer fact that it's in third person makes it a bit unusual by today's standards, but if it was all from Rusty's point of view, we wouldn't be able to get into the heads of the side characters as well. I often hear that first person, present tense has become di rigeur because it's "more immediate," but I don't buy it. I think it's just the style these days. Books like this make me think third person should make a comeback.

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