CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 12 . . . . February 17, 2006
Peggy's Letters. (Orca Young Readers).
Jacqueline Halsey. Illustrated by Susan Reilly.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2005.
116 pp., pbk., $7.95.
World War, 1939-1945-England-London-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 2-6 / Ages 7-11.
Review by Laura Dodwell-Groves.
I watch the flames eat our house. The roof has fallen in, and the front wall is down. Now everyone can see our home in its underwear. The neighbors pat me on the shoulder, then talk as if I'm not there.
Their pity is almost worse than the fire.
There's a gasp. Another wall crumples to the ground. Nora puts her arm round me. She is talking but her words are snatched away with the sparks and the smoke. I can only hear the fire. A cup of tea grows cold in my hands. I don't even know how it got there.
The gray sky darkens into night. The fire is out. Everyone goes. Even Nora says good-bye. I picture families in their homes, putting up the blackouts, making supper and listening to the wireless. I want to go home too.
Ten-year-old Peggy lives in London in the dark days at the end of the Second World War with her Mum and brother Tommy. One morning, a Doodlebug (the cheerful nickname for a German rocket bomb) lands on their house, destroying everything except the clothes on their back and Tommy's pram. This includes, (or so it seems) an old biscuit tin that contains letters from her father.
With no home, Peggy has to leave the school she knows and loves and move in with her grandfather, who seems grumpy about having them there. Over time, with the help of a boy called Spud, a sausage dinner, a sinking Christmas pudding, writing letters to her father and manifold adventures with the pram, Peggy begins to learn that ‘home' is so much more than a house.
Author Jacqueline Halsey has created a lovely story and does justice to a dominant period of modern history. Considering the weight of the things that are happening around them – bombs dropping, friends being evacuated, relatives dying, food rations – Halsey's characters maintain a wonderful bright tone, filling their lives with cheer and optimism. Halsey also brings in some of the more positive things to come out of the Second World War, such as the emancipation of women (wearing trousers, more job opportunities).
This lightness does not mean that she stints on the harder aspects of the war. Indeed, much of the book's success lies in the characters' stoicism. They are real, rich and engaging. Tommy is rambunctious, Spud is mischievous and exciting, Grandad is moody but loveable, Mum is open and unstinting, and Peggy is curious and courageous. Even the pram and the tin of letters develop distinct identities. Peggy's letters to her father give us a sense of his presence and an indication of what a magical family this was before war got in the way. Peggy's interactions with her brother are particularly touching.
Susan Reilly's illustrations are well placed and fit with the tone of the book, stark and engaging. And though I would have enjoyed her view of the sausage picnic under the stairs, I am happy to use my imagination.
In Peggy's Letters, Halsey creates a textured world, with deep and engaging characters, and succeeds in writing a stirring and delightful story.
Laura Dodwell-Groves is a Master of Children's Literature student at the University of British Columbia.
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