The Wilshires are a happy, wealthy British family. When WWII begins, Alex, the father, anticipates the Blitz and sends his four children out of London. The two youngest go to their grandparents in the country, while the older two attend boarding school. Alex’s wife, Lena, is emotionally needy and refuses to leave her husband, who must remain in London for work. So begins six years of upheaval for the Wiltshire children. Practical necessities and emergencies mean that they are moved from one school to another, from their grandparents to the home of various aunts and uncles, to their parents home and back again. Things get worse after Alex is killed by a bomb. Lena isn’t able to provide a steady foundation on which the family can regroup, so they falter in their own ways.
Despite all this volatility, the Wiltshires are lucky. We have all heard horror stories of children ending far, far worse during WWII. The Wiltshires have the financial resources to ensure that there is always a roof over their heads. They have an extended family of deeply flawed people, but also people who genuinely care about their welfare. The unasked, and unanswered question is, without these resources, what would become of these children? And are all of these resources enough to protect them?
As a teacher, I’ve seen that one of the most important things that children need is stability and consistency. Without these things, they feel uncertain and insecure. They might become anxious or begin to act out in different ways. We see all of that with the Wiltshire children. The oldest, Laurel, doesn’t particularly shine in any one area, which makes her self-conscious. She wants to be someone’s priority as she enters adolescence. Tony idolizes his father, and in his absence, he becomes withdrawn and sullen. Kim takes after his mother in his desire to be admired and is often unable to see beyond his own needs and desires. Tuesday, the youngest, is continuously anxious and unsure of herself and her surroundings.
Interestingly this book was written in 1945 when the field of child psychology was still in its infancy. Psychologists were just starting to identify the fact that childhood is a series of distinct developmental stages that each have its own needs. When these needs aren’t met children’s well being suffers just as much as it would if their physical needs were ignored. At the same time, children have a natural resilience. This is true of the Wiltshire children, who draw strength and support from various sources throughout the book.
I’m familiar with this information from several years of working with children as well as several graduate level courses in developmental psychology. The content of those courses came from sixty years of post-WWII research and study on the part of child psychologists. Noel Streatfield had access to none of it when she wrote this book, because it hadn’t been done yet. She had an intuitive understanding of the needs and feelings of children and the consequences when these needs aren’t met and acknowledged. That allowed her to write this perceptive book with psychological accuracy. The last half-century of research has proven her correct.
A Few Persephone Challenges:
Quote This: Share a quote from your current read.
Two stand out:
Alex did not answer. Every fibre of the Colonel must be protesting. Odd how, in a world where such unnameable horrors were commonplace, a simple thing like taking his home from an old man could still wring your heart.
Heaps of children grew up without much attention and turned out alright in the end … Heaps did, but were they the Laurels, Tonys and Tuesdays? She herself had grown up all right with very little attention, and little of it wise. All right but bruised. The Wiltshires were having a harder upbringing than she had. If only bruising was all they got out of it. What if they grew mis-shapen?
In Six Words: Describe your current Persephone read in 6 words.
psychological, nuanced, painful, humorous, bittersweet, perceptive
Contemporary Pairing: Pair a contemporary book with a Persephone title
Potentially interesting pairings that are also about growing up amidst conflict and loss.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini- About childhood in war-torn Afganistan
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins- About growing up in a violent dystopian future