The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham #1938Club

This review is part of the 1938 Club: add your reviews to the comments here.

I read the Persephone, but couldn't resist sharing this Puffin cover.
I read the Persephone, but couldn’t resist sharing this Puffin cover.

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.

18 thoughts on “The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham #1938Club

  • April 15, 2016 at 7:39 am
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    I read this a few years ago. I thought it was wonderfully charming I agree the children’s situation seems unrealistic, but I don’t think I cared about that when I read it.

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    • April 15, 2016 at 8:28 am
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      Agreed; you can’t really take it seriously, but it’s charming enough to get away with that.

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  • April 15, 2016 at 7:45 am
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    This sounds like a lovely book to read. Somehow I feel the book published years ago are more happy in nature inspite of life being difficult compared to the contemporary books which have a depressing overtone.

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    • April 15, 2016 at 8:28 am
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      It certainly seems that way – and thankfully the 1930s books weren’t quite as annoyingly moralistic as their Victorian equivalents. The perfect compromise!

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  • April 15, 2016 at 7:55 am
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    I read this when Persephone brought it out and didn’t really like it all that much — just couldn’t swallow the premise and got a bit irritated generally. Your review makes me think maybe I was a bit unfair to it!

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    • April 15, 2016 at 8:29 am
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      I can see how one would have to be in the right mood for it – for something a bit silly and entirely undemanding. I do still prefer their children’s books The Runaway.

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    • April 16, 2016 at 8:23 pm
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      Great fun is exactly what it is :)

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  • April 15, 2016 at 11:17 am
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    *gasp* the haybox oven! I know quite a few people who are trying to live the eco-dream and haybox-cooking has come up in conversation on a number of occasions. I’m tempted to get the book just to read more about that, although the Puffin cover alone would make the purchase worthwhile!

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    • April 16, 2016 at 8:23 pm
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      I does seem to have made rather an impression on a lot of people! I am more tempted to try an attic hammock. And even more tempted to stay inside…

      Isn’t the Puffin cover gorgeous?

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  • April 15, 2016 at 12:24 pm
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    I read this book to death as a child, as my mother did before me. I haven’t dared reread it in case the gloss comes off. It was such an important story for me about independence and responsibility, and about a family sticking together no matter what society’s rules were. I always liked the defiance of the children, refusing to do what the neighbours expected them to do. And the haybox oven, oh the practical genius of it. Such a brilliant story.

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    • April 16, 2016 at 8:26 pm
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      I love those lessons taken from it! I do also love anything that has family mottos, because they are such an interesting part of most families.

      Not sure whether or not it would stand up to a reread – it’s still such a fun book, but I doubt anything can match up to what we think of our favourite books as children!

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  • April 15, 2016 at 2:35 pm
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    You keep coming up with books I’ve never heard of, and what a charming cover!

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    • April 16, 2016 at 8:28 pm
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      Persephone Books had so many 1938 titles, I was spoiled for choice!

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  • April 17, 2016 at 1:16 pm
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    Thanks for this review..I had wondered what that book was about..thanks for the detail you gave, it sounds like a great vintage story! I love these kinds of old-fashioned stories that are just good comfort reads for me and my daughter..maybe we can try to find this one..right now we are enjoying The Family from One End Street!

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  • April 18, 2016 at 8:35 am
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    I felt about it pretty well exactly as you do, and loved it, and will return to it! So many good books published in 1938 and I’d already read a good few of them!

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  • April 18, 2016 at 10:16 am
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    We had this book as children and I’ve always loved it. Bear in mind that in 1938 it was probably more realistic than it seems now.

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  • April 22, 2016 at 10:49 am
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    I have de-lurked to comment on this, one of my favourite books as a child in the ’70s (when children were much more ‘free-range’ than they are now). I still have my copy and re-read it every so often on rainy afternoons. I loved it then & still do.
    While I am de-lurked, may I recommend another fabulous children’s book that seems to have slipped under the radar? ‘Robinsheugh’ by Eileen Dunlop, published in 1975. My 1977 Target paperback, bought with a 12th birthday book token, has beautiful, uncredited, illustrations.

    Reply

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