Apr 8, 2010

Doreen by Barbara Noble

Doreen by Barbara Noble
Doreen tells the story of a nine-year-old working class girl who is sent to the country in 1941 to escape the London Blitz. Doreen’s mother, Mrs Rawling, cleans offices. One morning, after a particularly heavy bombing, one of the office’s employees finds her in tears. Mrs Rawling shares her concerns about the safety of her daughter, and Miss Helen Osborne offers to write to her brother and sister-in-law, who live in a village in Oxfordshire and have no children, and ask them to take in Doreen. Soon everything is arranged, and Doreen finds herself on a train on her way to the Osborne’s – and also apart from her mother for the very first time in her life. Doreen deals with the misery caused by this separation, but not in the way you’d expect: it isn’t that Doreen is unhappy away from her mother; it’s that very soon she feels completely at home with the Osbornes, and settles into a new way of life.

Doreen is another personal and untold WW2 story, and as you might have noticed by now, I tend to love those. Evacuating children from London to keep them safe from the bombings was, from a practical standpoint, a wise and reasonable decision. But practical decisions often don’t leave any room for emotions to be taken into account. Doreen asks the questions that nobody could really afford to ask at the time: what did it feel like for a child to be sent away from the only home she’d ever known? What did it feel like for the parents, who had to spend months or even years away from their children? And finally, what did it feel like for the foster parents, many of whom couldn’t help but grow to love the children they had taken in?

With gentleness and insight, Barbara Noble addresses all these unacknowledged feelings. There was a war going on, and possibly people felt that their own personal feelings were not legitimate in the face of What Had To Be Done. But it’s only human to love; it's only human to worry we’ll lose those we have grown to love; it's human even to be selfish at times. The Osbornes, particularly Mrs Osborne, grow to love Doreen like the child they never had. Mrs Rawlings cannot help but resent this love, even as she’s grateful that Doreen is being treated with such kindness. She also cannot help but worry that this separation will do the same the bombs could have done – take her daughter away from her forever. And Doreen herself feels divided in her love for her mother and her love for her foster family, as well as in her appreciation of the kind of life the Osbornes, unlike her mother, can afford to give her, which she vaguely feels may be disloyal.

The other issue Doreen deals with is that of class: Doreen is a working-class girl, and the Osbornes are an upper class family. In 1946, when this book was published, the old class divisions were beginning to erode, but centuries of habit don’t disappear overnight, and there was still a strong feeling that the different social classes were not supposed to mingle. Helen Osborne warns her sister-in-law that everything she’s teaching Doreen may be a drawback rather than an advantage when she returns to her mother and her London life; Mrs Osborne herself hesitates between accepting she’ll be causing Doreen unhappiness in the future and depriving her of whatever happiness she can give her now; and Doreen’s mother fears that her daughter will be discontented with the life that awaits her after the war.

But as Mrs Osborne and Mrs Rawlings cautiously admit to each other towards the end of the novel, the class issue, real though it may be, is more of an official explanation; more of a mask behind which they can hide their true feelings. The fact is that these two women both love Doreen, and they cannot help but feel that they’re competing for the child’s affection. This may be selfish, but it’s also only too human.

Doreen is beautiful, perceptive, gentle and terribly sad. Like Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings, it shows us a side of WW2 that isn’t often talked about. Its greatest strength is the complete respect with which Barbara Noble deals with her characters’ feelings, be they children or adults, be these feelings dignified or not; rational or nor; easy to express or unspeakable. In the acknowledgement and validation it gives to emotional experiences that tend to be muted, Doreen is an immensely kind book.

Favourite passages:
“I think all children are alike in a special way, but I don’t know the words to explain what I mean.”
“All green and innocent and dewy?” Geoffrey suggested, to help her out.
“No, not that. I think I mean… well, that they’re all real people to themselves and only half-real to the rest of the world. Except to other children, of course. However much they’re loved, they’re never taken quite seriously. And yet their own lives and their own feelings are all terribly important to them. I’m sorry for children because they’re so helpless. They have to go where they’re pushed. I know that I did, anyhow.”

Doreen began to cry, silently, her face puckered, her heart sore. She understood perfectly well that she was being accused of disloyalty, and no scolding could have hurt her as much as that reproach. Her tears were not only for the moment, they were the same tears she had shed on Christmas Day. She cried because she had learned to love more than one person and it seemed that this was some kind of crime. How could you help loving people when they loved you and were kind? Why were people angry with you for it?

Francie let the challenge lie. There was nothing she could do. She accepted the fact, with all its bitterness. Doreen was Mrs Rawlings’ child, not hers. If Mrs Rawlings’ chose, Doreen must stay in London, for a week, for ever. And it appeared that Doreen herself wanted to stay. It was stupid too mind that—stupid and irrational and grudging. But she did mind. You minded things with your heart even when your head told you that you had no right or justification. That was part of loving someone, the humiliating coin in which you had to pay, the base coin which purchased nothing. For there was no ownership in love, no real ownership, even for Mrs Rawlings. But just now, for the time being, Mrs Rawlings held the tokens of authority.
Other opinions:
Fleur Fish Reads

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. Thank you so much for this review, Ana!! I have seen this book around but not sure if I should get it, now I knew I must! :D

  2. What a beautiful review. I definitely want to read this now. I wonder whether it would be good to read around the same time as Saplings. I have never read any books about the evacuees during WW2, although I loved the drama Goodnight Mr Tom, based on the book by Michelle Magorian. Although that wasn't as nice a tale, as his birth mother treated him very badly.
    I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to send my children away to live with complete strangers. I can understand the necessity of it during the war, but it must have been awful. Both of my parents were never sent away, although my dad's sister was. She was the only one out of six that went. Why she went and no one else, I have no idea.

  3. This is the book I'll be reading for Claire and Verity's Persephone Week in May - am really looking forward to it!

  4. Lovely review for a book I'm dying to read now. It sounds like it would be a great companion book to another Persephone, Saplings by Noel Streatfield. I think you've read that one too. Ah...don't you just love Persephones?

  5. Thanks for this lovely review. While reading it, it reminded me of a book I heard about last week, called The Very Thought of You, but I am sure that they are different. Although they share the same theme. Now I want to read both. And to my wish list it goes:)

  6. Oh Ana, I *must* find this book! You review itself was so touching, so beautiful. But then you shared those passages...oh my, I am so utterly in love with each one of those.

  7. How sad about Mrs. Rawlings! I can see how she would be torn by her conflicting emotions!

  8. I don't know if I could handle this book...it makes me feel sad just reading your review. Life is full of so many complicated, difficult, and painful decisions!

  9. Wow, I understand why people did what they did under the circumstances, but I'm not sure I'd be strong enough to do it. Fantastic review.

  10. Another one added to my to-read list. I can't imagine having to send my daughter away to protect her. Sounds like an emotional book. I'll add your review to War Through the Generations.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  11. sounds good ,not read many books about ww2 from female perspective

  12. sounds good ,not read many books about ww2 from female perspective

  13. Thank you so much for posting this excellent and thought provoking review. i am fascinated by the social history of this period and there are some wonderful books out there - of which this is one it would seem. I think that you would enjoy "Good evening Mrs Craven - the wartime stories of Mollie Panter Downes" if you have not already read it. Splendid post, thank you for sharing


  14. Another Persephone hits the mark!

    I've been wanting to read this since Fleur Fisher's review but it isn't one I have in my collection yet. As Andreaa above mentions, it may be interesting to compare with The Very Thought of You, which I have on my library pile.

    A timely post as I formally announced Persephone Reading Week today and JoAnn directed me your way.

  15. I love the passage about children being not quite real. That's so true. I try to be careful of that with my little cousins, to make sure I'm being respectful of them the way I would of a grown-up.

    This sounds great! I would abandon my Christian culture themed reading and read all about domestic life in World War II, except my library doesn't seem to have any of these books. :(

  16. I seem to be reading quite a lot of war-related books recently. I should continue my trend with Doreen! It definitely sounds like a good one.

  17. This is an aspect of war that I had never considered. It sounds like this would definitely be something that I would like to read, not only for the story it tells about Doreen, but as a way of understanding the class differences and unusual relationships and situations that can be brought on by a war. A beautiful review that makes me want to rush right out and grab a copy of this book. Thanks!

  18. I've always been fascinated by this practice of taking children away to safety but away from their families during the war.

  19. This sounds like a multi-layered novel with a character it's easy to connect with. I don't know of many novels dealing with the evacuation of children from London during the German bombings. There's The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe -- but the evacuations are simply a plot device. And there's Carrie's War by Nina Bawden.

  20. The plot is interesting, never read a similar plot like this one. The amazing part of this is, it is a possibility and it must be definitely a big issue for 9 year old to handle it. That alone has stirred my curiosity.

  21. This is a gorgeous review, sounds like a lovely book. It actually made me want to dig out Goodnight Mr Tom and have a lovely cry! Thanks!

  22. One of my favorite things about your blog is that I am continually introduced to books I have never heard before. This sounds wonderful!

  23. Melody: Somehow I actually thought this was one of the lesser-known Persephones. I'm glad to hear it's been getting some press!

    Vivienne: I think reading this around the same time as Saplings would be an excellent idea. They're actually quite different even though they're about the same subject, and they'd complement each other nicely. And yeah, I can't even imagine having to make that decision :\

    JoAnn, I hope you love it as much as I did! And I think you will :)

    Mrs B: I do - I'm starting to REALLY get the obsession :D

    Andreea: I actually hadn't heard of The Very Thought of You, and it sounds excellent. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

    Debi, you'd LOVE it. But keep tissues at hand :P

    Jill, I felt so bad for her. And for Mrs Osborne too - she grows to really love Doreen.

    Amy: It was incredibly sad, yes :(

    Kathy: It must have been so hard either way. If people kept their children with them, they knew they'd be endangering their lives every day. If they didn't, there were risks of a different kind.

    Anna, thank you so much for adding it!

    Winstonsdad: It seems that these stories are only beginning to be told/rediscovered. Better late than never!

  24. Hannah, I haven't yet read Good Evening Mrs Craven, but I own a copy and plan to get to it during Persephone Week next month. I'm really looking forward to it! And thank you so much for the kind words :)

    Claire, I'm so looking forward to next month! I was going to save this one for then, but since I have another two I figured I might as well give in :P

    Jenny: I could read about domestic life in WW2 for a whole month too. Sadly I only have one more book on the subject on my tbr pile and I'm determiined to REALLY stick to my book buying ban this time :P

    Emidy: So do I, and it's completely unplanned. I love reading serendipity.

    Zibilee: "as a way of understanding the class differences and unusual relationships and situations that can be brought on by a war" --> yes! It's an excellent book for that.

    Kathleen: It must have been such a hard decision to make.

    Stepanie: I hadn't actually hard of Carrie's War - must look it up! And that's true about Narnia! I'd forgotten that was how the children ended up at their great-uncle's.

    Vic: It was actually more difficult for the adults. But in the end that affected the child as well.

    Elise: Thank you! And clearly I need to get my hands on a copy of Goodnight Mr Tom myself.

    Trisha, thank you so much!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.