________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 19 . . . . May 27, 2005


The Girls They Left Behind.

Bernice Thurman Hunter.
Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2005.
192 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 1-55041-927-7.

Subject Heading:
World War, 1939-1945-Canada-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 5-11 / Ages 10-16.

Review by Michelle Warry.

*** /4

Reviewed from galleys.


When Dad was told about the accident he said, “Maybe you should go back to Eatons. I hear they’re crying for help now.”

“No,” I said. “War work makes me feel patriotic. I’ll just go to bed early so I won’t fall asleep on the job. I think that’s what happened to Sybil.” I didn’t tell him about the fumes.

I proved my point by almost falling asleep at the table over my bowl of stew. Mother had made a delicious stew from the pot roast left over from Sunday.

“We’re all out of meat rations,” she said, “so eat up and fortify yourselves. That’s the last you’ll see until next Monday.”

. . . [later that night]

Dear [Diary]: March 16, 1944
Tonight, when Carl drove me home, he asked me to be his girl. At least, I think that’s what he meant. Then, when I hesitated and made an excuse, he sounded mad as he said, “It’s because I’m in civvies, isn’t it?” And I said, no. That wasn’t the reason. But. . . was it?. . . I have to admit I feel kind of embarrassed when I get on the streetcar with him. . . . Then I remembered how proud I was to be seen with Carmen in his airforce blue and Will in his army khakis. (pp. 92-93)

The Girls They Left Behind, Bernice Thurman Hunter’s last book, is clearly recognizable as “classic” Hunter. This historical work for 10 to 16-year-olds has all the markers of Hunter’s style: memoirs lightly fictionalized, detailed period markers, a recognizable Canadian setting, a spunky heroine, and a simple style. Fans of the “Booky” series will likely also enjoy this last offering.

     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.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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