Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Keeping Henry, by Nina Bawden

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A quirky young squirrel named Henry is adopted by a family evacuated from London during the war.

Charlie, James and their older sister (we presume a young Nina Bawden, although as narrator she never gives her name), have been evacuated to the countryside during the Second Wolrd War. They are living with their mother on a Welsh farm while their father is part of the war effort overseas. Seven-year-old Charlie has discovered a nest in a tree by a brook. Using his brother’s catapault, he disrupts the nest and knocks a young squirrel out of it. Happy with his prize, he bring the squirred home and he is soon named Henry.

The children’s mother, a teacher, is immediately enchanted with the little creature and so he is adopted as a family pet. Henry’s interactions with the humans, his funny laguage, his misadventuers (falling into a pail of milk), the way he attempts to eat an apple and most amusing of all, Henry’s industrious and rather innovative building of a nest within the family home (he collects knickers and bras to make a cozy home), are all detailed in Nina Bawden’s beautifully simple yet evocative prose.

Life on the farm, however, is not all fun and games. There are many tough life lessons to be learnt, such as the cruelties of nature and the tough life and death decisions that need to be made on the farm. When the children discover the local farmer’s wife Mrs Jones is very ill, they must confront questions of mortality too.

Nina Bawden’s wartime children’s novel, published in 1988, is based on a seemingly meagre conceit, a childhood memory of a pet squirrel that stayed for a season. Yet around this simple childhood memory, Bawden builds a rich and rewarding story of war, the pains of growing up and the fragility of life. In large part it reads like a mix of memoir and natural history. What elevates it to the status of classic fiction is its concentration on the inner lives of its young main characters. They all experience such a wide range of complicated emotions – from shame and embarrassment to joy and wonder. Nina Bawden revives all the splendour and heartache of youth in a mere slip of a story.

A prize example of how a master storyteller can spin straw into gold.

Keeping Henry, by Nina Bawden. Published by Virago. ISBN: 9780349009193  RRP: $16.99

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