It seemed the whole world was crying. The grey sky had turned to mist again and the mist had turned to rain and poured down on us with no compassion or kindness. – Sue Reid Sexton, Mavis’s Shoe
There have been a number of films made and books written about war from the perspective of a child: John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, J G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, Misako Matsubara’s Cranes at Dusk, Reinhardt Jung’s Dreaming in Black and White, Maureen Myant’s The Search and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. And now we have Mavis’s Shoe by Glasgow writer Sue Reid Sexton.
The narrator of Sue’s novel is a nine-year-old girl called Leonora Gillespie, although she prefers to be called ‘Lenny’ most of the time, an engaging, spunky and determined young lady in any period of history. When we get to meet her for the first time is 13 March 1941, a very significant date in Scotland’s timeline because this was the first night of the Clydebank Blitz.
When people think about the Blitz the first thing that will come to most people’s minds, especially non-Brits, will be the shelling of London and as far as duration goes London received the longest barrage but it was by no means the only city that suffered:
Bombing on a serious scale began in September 1940, as Nazi Germany began to accept defeat in the Battle of Britain … Through October 1940, the Luftwaffe also began to vest efforts in attacks elsewhere. On 15 October, 170 people died in a raid on Birmingham. On 14 November, the Germans launched their infamous attack on Coventry, a centre of the British motor industry … Five hundred and forty-four people died, and two-thirds of Coventry houses were rendered uninhabitable…
Coventry is important because it was the first practical test of a new German system for terror raids. – John Macleod, River of Fire, pp.93,94
This system was known as X-Gerät (X-Apparatus) and was a form of radio navigation which enabled almost pinpoint accuracy. It was not perfect and the British learned quickly a method of ‘bending’ the beams, too late for Coventry but in time to minimise the damage done to Birmingham on 19 November. The Germans’ modus operandi was a simple enough one: following the radio beam a KG-100 ‘Pathfinder’ Group would carpet a town or city with ‘Thermite’ incendiary bombs and the aircraft in the tail would simply steer for the flames. It was this approach that proved particularly effective when the Germans decided to attack the shipbuilding town of Clydebank but what is really sad about it is that the technology to bend the beams was never used.
One Clydebank lady [had this to say]: “It was the sky, the sky was all lit wi’ red, just a red flow in the sky, and comin’ over Windyhill, you could see the whole o’ the Clyde valley . . . Clydebank seemed to be all on fire . . .” – John Macleod, River of Fire, p.113
There were two raids in total and two days later there were only seven houses that were entirely undamaged out of 12,000; 4,300 were completely destroyed. The exact number of casualties has been contested but the most widely accepted figures are 528 dead and 617 badly injured. In 1969 the historian Angus Calder wrote:
Glasgow lost many more houses in the same air raids but its small neighbour had the honour of suffering the most nearly universal damage of any British town. – quoted in John Macleod, River of Fire, p.200
Looking back it seems incredible that no one thought Clydebank would get hit. The local politicians were certainly blasé and many of their constituents had been lulled into a false sense of security. Why did no one spot it? In her novel, The Holy City, Meg Henderson puts forth an opinion:
The bombing on Clydebank was a terror mission. Let the scholars and the intellectuals say what they would. The people who were there, the ones who ran screaming in terror or spent hours trapped under debris, and those who spent weeks looking for families blown into so many pieces that they were never found; they knew better. … [I]t was in the RAF’s interests that the bait was in place, but the bait consisted of families … grandparents, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, all pawns in a great big war game. As the uniformed men were cannon fodder, the civilians were bomber fodder. – Meg Henderson, The Holy City, pp.60,61
Of course none of the above is known to Lenny. All Lenny knows is that she’s lost her little sister, Mavis, can’t find the key to their flat and all hell has been let loose around her:
There was a rumbling sound, like the engines at the factory, or a car, only louder, but it was up in the sky, then a screech like a whistle or a scream. It seemed to last a long time. We looked up frozen in not knowing. Then the most almighty explosion shook the ground underneath us and everyone screamed.
A neighbour tries to coax her into an Anderson shelter but Lenny insists she has to find her sister:
I backed up the garden and headed through the close. The shelter door clanged shut and the rise and fall of voices went on behind it.
There was a shoe like Mavis’s by the close mouth. I picked it up and turned it over in my hand. The baffle wall was hot at my back. I wasn’t sure the shoe was hers. I tried to remember her feet, her shoes, like mine only smaller, her shoes that had once been someone else’s. I stuck it in my pocket, where the key should have been.
She stumbles through the chaos and finds herself in Boquhanran Park just at the back of Kilbowie Road. Here she runs into an Air Raid Protection warden known to all the local kids as ‘Mr Chippie’ who is the first person to draw her attention to the fact that she herself has been injured:
I put my hand on my head. It felt odd. My hair seemed to have shrunk and there was sticky stuff like jam over my ear. It didn’t feel like me.
Eventually they make their way to one of the local picture houses, the La Scala – Lenny’s mother has “[g]one to the cinema with a nice young man” as she insists in telling people in so many words – but she’s not there and neither is Mavis. There she receives some needed attention from a kindly woman in a fur coat who thinks she’s a boy and not simply because she gives her name as Lenny; her dress is in tatters. As the woman lifts her up onto a black Formica space beside the sink Lenny sees herself in the mirror:
I twisted myself away from her, transfixed by this boy whose eyes were wide and white in the blackness of his face and I looked at my transformation. I looked for myself in his hair, his forehead, the curve of his black face, the collar of his shirt and peering over the lip of the mirror I saw the pocket and recognised his hand, like mine, was hidden in its shallow depths, fumbling with the shoe. I took my hand out and held it up to the mirror and the boy waved back. He looked as scared as I was, as pleased to be me as I was to be him and I wondered if he’d lost his wee sister and his mum too, and whether he felt sick.
Lenny has pleaded with Mr Chippie to try to locate her sister and mum. To his credit he tries and a while later he reappears with a little girl in tow:
Mavis had no eyebrows and she had no fringe and had big blue eyes instead of big brown ones. She had both hands in the pocket of her dress and there were strips of wet tears through her blackened face, Mavis wasn’t Mavis, or not my Mavis.
Actually she turns out to be a little orphan called Rosie Tomlin who Lenny takes under her wing – she becomes something of a surrogate Mavis, not that Lenny ever gives up the search for her sister because she devotes about the next 400 pages to that task – that would be about a fortnight.
In the La Scala two other important players come into the picture: Mrs Wetherspoon (or Mrs Weatherbeaten as Lenny insists on calling her sometimes even to her face), her teacher, and a neighbour, Mr Tait, who up until this point she only knows as a scary man with a big fancy stick for hitting children with. As it turns out he’s Lenny’s mum’s boss but it’s a while before she discovers that. Anyhow from this point on the book follows the adventures of this little pseudo-family as they set out to, firstly, flee Clydebank as the second wave of bombers – she calls them “killer bees” – approaches and, secondly, to try and locate Lenny’s family.
There’s nothing on the back of the ARC I was sent to indicate who the target audience for this book is other than the line “Parental warning: contains some disturbing scenes” which suggests that we’re looking at a younger audience and the book is listed on lovereading4kids.co.uk. I thought I’d ask Sue:
What age range is the book aimed at? The press release says “teen fiction / adult crossover” but if that’s the case why make Lenny only nine?
It seems to be enjoyed by all age groups except young children, who I haven’t given it to because they might find some of the descriptions a bit disturbing. Lenny is young enough not to be overly self-conscious but old enough to understand and personally strong enough to be able to pass comment on what she sees. Kids in those days were generally a bit more mature and often left in charge of quite young siblings. Read London Pride by Phyllis Bottome.
I don’t believe people only read books about other people the same age or gender, in the same way it’s possible to enjoy the company of other people of all ages.
The map at the front of the book was nice but you use a number of Scotticisms (clype, cludgie, close) as well as some period terminology (half-crown, baffle wall) – would a short glossary not have been a help?
Lenny does explain some of them and I think glossaries can be more distracting than not quite getting the full meaning. Most of these words are self-explanatory and add to the flavour.
The dialogue is not very realistic. I would have expected the teacher to 'speak proper' but I would have felt a little more comfortable if the kids especially had been a bit rougher, 'no' instead of 'not', 'Ah'm' instead of 'I'm' – that kind of thing. Do you think using a more realistic dialect would be off-putting to modern kids or what?
I would need to have written the whole thing in local language. I’m Scottish but not from Clydebank and anything I wrote would have been an insult to them. This is also why Lenny is not from Clydebank herself.
Additionally, while the book is about the bombing of Clydebank it is also about the universal experience of war and the awful effects it has on ordinary people. While personally I do enjoy reading other people’s local languages, I didn’t think it was necessary enough in this instance to do it myself, especially when my aim is to draw in a wider audience. It’s a decision I had to make.
I don’t think you need to pull your punches when writing for younger people either. I’m with Mr Tait on not lying to kids about things that matter. I was drawn to the subject when we invaded Iraq, particularly with the news that so many journalists were being killed. I realised that most people, myself included, didn’t really know what was going on or even what going to war on another country really meant, so I set out to find out. This is the result. It’s my way of passing comment on the various wars that are happening around the world today. It’s less troublesome writing about a period in recent history than choosing a region or country in the present day.
I also think it is important that the scale of the bombing of Clydebank is known. So few people are fully aware of it.
Having a nine-year-old as your narrator seriously inhibits your ability to comment on what's happening. Might it not have been a better idea to have a grownup Lenny looking back on her childhood?
I disagree. Nine-year-olds think and feel things in a far more spontaneous manner than older children or adults, who are more likely to be calculating and deliberate. They also still have that fantastic sense of fairness, equality, good old down to earth sense, and a great sense of all things being achievable, all of which seem to dissolve with time.
Mavis’s Shoe is a well-written book considering its intended audience. It’s clearly been carefully researched but there’s only a limited amount of information and insight that can be shared because of Lenny’s age although there was nothing stopping Sue incorporating adult conversations which Lenny might overhear which she does do but I personally would have liked to have had a little more. If, for example, Lenny had told the story to her own granddaughter then she could have commented on for example how ill prepared Clydebank was both practically and psychologically for the airstrike, things that even the adults around her might not have thought about at the time for dealing with more pressing concerns although the inclusion of a local politician amongst the survivors might have been a simple way to bring that issue to the fore.
At 424 pages I thought it was going to be a chore to get through it but I read it over two days with no real skimming. The ratio of action to description to dialogue (both internal and external) was about right. There is a simple but helpful map at the beginning showing Lenny’s journey and a few pages of notes about the Clydebank Blitz as well as the Carbeth Hut Community where Lenny’s group ends up fleeing to which was interesting. There was a link to www.carbethhuts.com but it would have been nice to have a couple of links to sites talking about the bombing of Clydebank itself like Sue has on her website. I have to agree with the reviewer who said:
This can't have been an easy book to write: getting across Lenny's experience and subsequent trauma, in a way which didn't shy away from the horrific reality of the blitz, whilst maintaining the level of restraint necessary when writing for young people. – Moira Foster, Waterstone’s customer review
The book is published by Waverley Books. They don’t have a website which is a bit odd in this day and age but I checked their back catalogue and it’s almost exclusively devoted to books about Scotland, many clearly aimed at a younger audience. What I can say is that this book is very well produced. The cover is striking, it has French folds which I think adds a bit of class to any book, and there are a couple of striking illustrations on the inside of the cover, one of the Singer clock tower and another of one of the Carbeth huts.
Mavis’s Shoes was published on 1 March and retails at £7.99. It also looks as if it will be available as an e-book for £4.99.
Sue is a writer of fiction, including novels, short stories and poetry. She was also a psychotherapist and counsellor for ten years, specialising in trauma, and before that she was a social worker in homelessness and mental health for another ten years. Now she dedicates herself to writing fiction. For some time now she has been working with Iraqi writer-in-exile Kusay Hussain helping him put his stories into English.
She is interested in the use of writing for health, as a way of understanding the self, for exploring experience, for sustaining identity and enabling the coming to terms with change. This is in addition to creative writing as art. She is interested in working with all groups but in particular those who might use groups or writing workshops for those reasons (and many more).
For anyone seriously interested in reading about the Clydebank Blitz Sue recommends checking out IMM MacPhaill's book, The Clydebank Blitz but the following websites are also quite informative:
West Dunbartonshire Council: The Clydebank Blitz in words and pictures
Scotland’s History: Clydebank Blitz page
Glasgow City Council: The Blitz on Clydebank
Tom McKendrick: Clydebank Blitz