This review is part of the 1938 Club: add your reviews to the comments here.
According to the pencil note inside of my copy of The Children Who Lived in a Barn, I bought it on 18th June 2009 in London, though whether that was at the Persephone shop or not, I couldn’t tell you. As I said before, one of the lovely things about this sort of theme week is that it gives me the opportunity to take down books from my shelves that I have left too long neglected – and The Children Who Lived in a Barn was precisely the sort of book I wanted to read over the past few days, feeling sorry for myself with a cold.
Eleanor Graham isn’t one to cloak the story of her book. It is, indeed, about children who live in a barn. The children are Sue, Bob, Joseph, Samuel, and Alice – in that age order, with Sue the eldest at 12. Joseph and Samuel are twins known as Jumbo and Sambo, or Jum and Sam, and are the sort of storybook twins who speak in unison and share a single character. As for the rest, Sue is resourceful and domestic, Alice is feminine and a little spoiled, and Bob is adventurous and a bit stubborn. Graham hasn’t reinvented the wheel when it comes to the children’s characters. She is particularly, if not surprisingly, old-fashioned when it comes to gender roles (“Why on earth were we made girls, Al? Boys can always run off and do things outside, but we always have to tidy up indoors”.) But her premise is rather unusual.
The children’s parents are called suddenly away to visit an ailing relative – and are taking the then-modern and relatively unusual step of flying there. But the children don’t hear back from them… and then they are evicted by the obstreperous man who leases their house… There are threats from local busybodies (more on them soon) that the children will be divided up, until a kindly local farmer offers them the use of his barn. And they take him up on it.
The barn is a bit less basic then one might imagine – it has a stove, a tap, and other bathroom requirements are mysteriously never mentioned. Still, it stretches credibility a touch to believe that parents would blithely leave five children of 12 and under to their own devices, even without the possibility of eviction on the horizon. But this, of course, is fantasy – and nobody (in 1938, at least) turned to children’s literature for gritty realism.
There are some locals who share my mistrust of the situation – but the District Visitor (‘the D.V.’) and her ilk are treated with short shrift by Graham. Without exception, they perform their duties with rudeness and rigorous unkindness. Here’s Mrs. Legge in action:
“We have been working very hard indeed on your behalf and have now decided on a plan of action. Oh, yes, you got here first – but we had actually arranged for you to do something of the sort, for a time at least. The summer lies ahead of us and you won’t suffer any great hardship in camping out here for a few weeks or even months. You must not, of course, just run wild. But we shall see that that does not happen. We must know that you are observing the decencies of life, that the place is being kept clean and in order, that you have enough to eat and that you are attending properly to hair, teeth, nails,and so on. So for the present you may stay here and we have appointed Miss Ruddle to come here and inspect every Friday at half-past-four.”
It is clear that the reader is supposed to cheer on the situation of the children living in the barn, looking after themselves, and I was more than willing to suspend disbelief and everything else, and get behind Sue et al. It was just too enjoyable and charming a story not to.
Once they’re in situ, the book is quite episodic – as many children’s stories of the period were. So we see Alice’s interactions with poor Miss Blake (who spends a great deal of time making her an ugly frock; the ugliness and Miss Blake’s strict manner are enough for us to dispose of her pretty swiftly), Bob’s apprenticeship at a barber’s, Sue’s education in washing clothes – and they are all dealt with and left behind as the next adventure rears its head. I don’t recall the twins doing much besides speaking in unison, but presumably they had their own adventures at some point.
The one that everyone seems to remember, and which I had come across in the Persephone Quarterly (as was) and other discussions was… the haybox! Apparently this is a legitimate way to cook things, more or less like a slow-cooker, and has beguiled generations ever since the book first came out. I was more interested in ‘Solomon’, a passing tramp whose use of any and all wise saws earns him his nickname. Graham wrote him wittily, and I have a penchant for characters who use aphorisms willy-nilly.
Being a 1930s children’s book, it perhaps won’t surprise you that nothing particularly awful befalls any of the children and (spoilers) the parents turn out to be fine too – but the events and stakes scarcely matter. If Journeying Wave was a comforting rollercoaster for adults, this is the same for children. I can see myself reading and re-reading this delightedly had I first come across it as a child – and, to be honest, I’d happily revisit it now. The Children Who Lived in a Barn is charming fun, and must have been very welcome respite at a time when the world was clearly about to change.