It is September 1939. Shirley Louise Smith, aged ten, is evacuated from London to an unidentified small town in the safer countryside. Her mother is a housewife and her father has just left his job as a travelling salesman to enlist in the army. In London Shirley has attended Paradise Road School. But when her mother puts her on the train Mrs Smith decides the Paradise Road kids are not good enough. She seats Shirley with the posher girls from St Agatha’s Convent. But Shirley, not quite up to the required standard, is left at the evacuation centre with two boys Kevin and Archie: these are the ones nobody wants. Eventually she is billeted with two old ladies, Mrs Waverley and her housekeeper Miss Chubb. Her new home, the Red House, is mysterious and sparsely furnished. What secrets do the residents of the Red House conceal, and what effect will those secrets have on them all?
One of the problems with being Jacqueline Wilson is that her readers expect perfection from her every time they open a new book. There are one or two very minor defects in this book which it is as well to mention. For example she uses the term ‘plastic’. This reviewer believes that term came into use after the war. In 1939 she probably should have used ‘bakelite’ and explained it. For books such as Katy, Wilson has clearly conducted a serious amount of research into the lives of disabled people. That research lives comfortably in the fabric of the book. In this case a similar degree of research has probably been undertaken into the experiences of evacuees but it lies more visibly on the surface of the text.
On the train Shirley meets a girl named Jessica Lipman, the daughter of a famous Hollywood film star. The two girls immediately hit it off because they are both keen readers. They are parted on arrival, Shirley sent off with the other girls from the posh school. But Jessica is in any case expelled from St Agatha’s for penning an immoral story. To this reviewer, this episode has a melodramatic ring.
Wilson has a gift for striking truths. One of the evacuees has a problem with bed-wetting. Unusually perhaps it is an older boy. Wilson handles this tricky issue with consummate skill, which might be a great comfort to any reader facing the same problem.
Despite the minor flaws, this book is a worthy addition to Wilson’s ever-growing body of work.