CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 19 . . . . May 27, 2005
In The Girls They Left Behind, protagonist Beryl comes of age and struggles with her identity and life’s purpose against the backdrop of the last years of World War II in Toronto. Beryl, emboldened by shifting power dynamics on the homefront, experiments with a new persona and renames herself “Natalie.” Although Natalie worries about the friends and relatives who join the war effort and is occasionally resentful about being “left behind,” she is relatively fulfilled by her new and powerful role in society. The lack of men in Toronto (and, of course, all over North America) allows women to do work that directly contributes to the war effort. Natalie finds work making Mosquito planes. She is financially and emotionally rewarded, and she becomes almost giddy with the thrill of her new standing in society. But Natalie faces sobering difficulties as well: both minor, as when she looks for a suitable boyfriend, and major, as when her favourite cousin is proclaimed missing, then presumed dead. Because her experience is historically typical of many girls and women of this period, Natalie can be seen as representative of all the girls who were left behind during wartime.
As always, Hunter’s style is simple, even naïve. It is marred occasionally by lack of development in scenes, awkward use of the passive voice, low conflict, slow plot progress, and clunky colloquialisms; these sometimes give the genuine feel of a real young girl reflecting on her life (indeed, parts of The Girls They Left Behind—some of the best parts, actually—are in diary form), but more often show a lack of artistry. This lack is truly frustrating: Hunter was one of the first Canadian writers to bring fictionalized domestic portraits of pivotal periods in Canadian history to children. Her “Booky” books, for all their lack of artistry, still provide valuable insight into a young girl’s experience of the Depression. The Girls They Left Behind provides a similar insight into a teenaged girl’s experience of the War.
The Girls They Left Behind is unique in another way. Hunter passed away before she finished writing this book, and so her daughter, Heather Anne Hunter, finished it at her mother’s request. According to Heather’s note at the end of the book, she was able to find a scrap of paper in her mother’s notes that showed her how to end the story. This must mean that Heather wrote at least the last 25 pages of the 191 page novel. She has done an excellent job; her prose has a discernible crispness, and her scenes are detailed and complete. Heather is particularly alert to appealing to all five senses in her writing.
It is a blessing that she was able to step up and do this work. The Girls They Left Behind, for all its lack of literary sophistication, contains an original portrait of a very particular situation at a pivotal time in history. Hunter’s fictional interpretation of shifting gender and power dynamics on the homefront during wartime, as well as girls’ roles in this societal milieu, is both interesting and informative—an important contribution to Canadian children’s literature.
Hopefully Heather Anne Hunter will continue on to follow her mother’s lead: she has made a wonderful start.
Michelle Warry obtained her Masters in Children’s Literature from the University of British Columbia.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.