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Stories For Children, Histories of Childhood. Volume II

Rosie Findlay
Sébastien Salbayre

Their past, our future: the relevance of WW2 experiences for contemporary children

Rose-May Pham Dinh


Their past, our future: the relevance of WW2 experiences for contemporary children.
Sixty years after the end of the conflict, WW2 is still perceived as a defining moment for the identity of Britain and a period whose experiences must be transmitted to the new generations. The paper examines four recent novels for the young, two British ones as well as an American and an Australian import. Either by having their protagonists travel back in time to WW2 or by resorting to an embedded narrative, they deliberately stage the encounter of modern day children with this particular period. While the representation they give of childhood, then and now, is essentially characterized by helplessness and loneliness, despite some evidence of a potential for resilience, the books also tend to illustrate various degrees of belief in the ability of fiction to convey historical and ethical lessons for their young intended readers.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Juliet Gardiner, The Children's War, London, Portrait, 2005, p. 6.
  • 2 Ibid., p. 7.

1To celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the Imperial War Museum is currently staging an exhibition called “The children’s war.” In her book presented as “the official companion” to the exhibition, Juliet Gardiner defines WW2 as “[...] the first, though tragically not the last, war that put civilians – children included – centre stage on the battleground that was the Home Front between 1939 and 1945,”1 and insists that this was “[...] a time that changed Britain, in many ways forever, and played a large part in shaping and defining what it is today”.2

  • 3 J. Gardiner, op. cit., p. 6.
  • 4 Rose-May Pham Dinh, “Devoir de mémoire, droit au pardon: le poids du passé dans la littérature de j (...)

2Thus is the relevance of WW2 to an understanding of contemporary British society once more reasserted. Sixty years after its end, this conflict is still perceived as a defining moment for Britain especially, although this does not preclude a certain reassessment of the iconic status once of ascribed to that particular episode in the national past. While the first-hand testimonies of those who grew up during the period are irreplaceable as “primary sources”, the necessity to “[...] pass the stories on to generations who have no personal memory of that time”3 has also been addressed by fiction. From the late 60s onwards, WW2 has been reconstructed for young British readers by numerous authors, with various motivations and different perspectives. In a previous article,4 I analysed books in which contemporary children found themselves confronted with their – dark – family wartime past, as circumstances, their individual quest or a school project led them to unearth family secrets. In this paper, I have chosen to restrict myself to books which stage the encounter with the past by resorting to the tradition of the time-slip novel, or by including an embedded wartime narrative. Chronologically, the first is Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, published in the United States in 1988, and in Britain in 1990. The others are Melvin Burgess’s An Angel in May (1992), and Robert Swindells’s Blitzed (2002), two British productions, to which I will add an Australian import, Jackie French’s Hitler’s Daughter (1999), available in Britain two years later. My analysis will have two main purposes: on the one hand I shall try to define how the wartime experiences of the protagonists are shown to inform their understanding of past and present issues (and that of the reader); on the other hand, I shall attempt to show how childhood is represented, and in particular to determine whether it is characterised as culturally rooted – taking into account the authors’ different backgrounds and original target readerships – or as an experience common to all human beings, irrespective of time and place.


  • 5 Jane Yolen, The Devil’s Arithmetic [USA, 1988], Harmondsworth, Puffin, p. 1.
  • 6 Ibid.

3The Devil’s Arithmetic is explicitly meant to be a tool of transgenerational transmission and a fictional contribution to historical knowledge of the period. The author dedicates her book to both sets of grandparents, Jewish immigrants to America in the first part of the twentieth-century, stating: “We were the lucky ones. This book is a memorial for those who were not,”5 but also to her “[...] daughter, [...] whose Hebrew name is Chaya [...] which means life,”6 this being also the heroine’s name in her WW2 incarnation. A postscript entitled “what is true about this book” both legitimates the recourse to fiction to tell children about the Holocaust as a supplement to history teaching and stresses the limits of what fiction can do.

  • 7 Ibid., p. 163.

4While Yolen’s immediate family was not directly affected by the Holocaust, her book fits in with the Jewish community’s insistence on remembering, an injunction whose relevance to the dramatic events of WW2 is reinforced by its Biblical roots (Zakhor). It is no coincidence if the story opens with the Seder ceremony, in which the youngest child asks ritual questions about the commemoration of Passover, for instance the custom of eating of bitter herbs to evoke the bitterness of exile. The whole story revolves around this duty to remember, however unbearable the memories might be. As Hannah’s aunt Eva, a survivor of the camps, eventually reflects: “Remembering was too painful but to forget was impossible.”7

  • 8 Ibid., p. 159.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 164.
  • 10 Ibid., p. 164.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 3.

5Hannah initially expresses impatience with her family’s observance of Jewish traditions, and her grandfather Will’s continued obsession with the camps, which she dismisses as a thing of the past with no relevance to her life as a modern American girl whose best friend is a Christian. As she opens the door to welcome Elijah, dutifully playing her part in a ritual she does not really believe in, she finds herself transported to a Polish shtetl in 1942. From there, she is taken with the other villagers to a camp, travelling in cattletrucks in the full knowledge of the fate that awaits them. Camp life is described in all its brutality, until Chaya – Hannah’s wartime self –deliberately replaces another girl called Rivka among those selected for death, since, as she says, “[the guard] won’t know the difference. One Jew is the same as another to him.”8 Stepping into the gas-chamber brings her back to modern times. Even as Hannah recognizes the number on Aunt Eva’s arm, the latter states: “In my village, in the camp..., in the past [...] I was called Rivka,”9 to which Hannah replies: “I remember. Oh, I remember.”10 The final words of the book thus contrast her opening statement, the incipit of the novel: “I am tired of remembering.”11

  • 12 Ibid., p. 167.
  • 13 Ibid., p. 169.

6Yolen is unashamedly didactic in her stated intention to awaken her readers, like Hannah, to the necessity of keeping the memories of the Holocaust alive, both the “horrible routinization of evil”12 and the heroism of being able “to resist being dehumanized, to simply outlive one’s tormentors, to practise the quiet, everyday caring for one’s equally tormented neighbours. To witness. To remember.”13

7While Yolen’s work primarily addresses the American Jewish community of which she is a member, those who believe in the universal significance of the Holocaust will find potential relevance for readers outside it.


  • 14 See Martin Evans & Ken Lunn (eds). War & Memory in the Twentieth Century. Oxford, Berg. 1997.

8The Holocaust was not directly part of the British experience, and this in part accounts for its belated and still limited inclusion in British books about the war. Most early British retroactive literature was based on the authors’ recollections of their own childhood experiences of living under German bombs during the Blitz or being evacuated to the safety of the countryside, and these two themes are still central to the collective memory of WW2.14

  • 15 Melvin Burgess, An Angel for May [1992], Harmonds worth, Puffin, 1994, p. 44.
  • 16 Ibid., p. 54.
  • 17 J. Yolen, op. cit., pp. 118 & 128.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 134.

9In An Angel for May, when Tarn finds himself back in WW2, he claims to be a London evacuee. With his clothes, notably the fabric of his anorak – “Some kind of substitute?,”15 wonders one character – his sneakers, and his English, he stands out in the markedly northern rural surroundings of Cawldale, the very place he inhabits in modern times but barely recognizes: “It was his town but it was another world.”16. For him as for Hannah, the past is indeed a foreign country, whose codes are unknown. When first transferred to the shtetl, Hannah is shocked by the lack of comfort of Gitl and Shmuel’s house, as well as the simplicity of the food, and the ugliness of the dress that Gitl lends her specially for what is to be Shmuel’s wedding-day. Of course, this is nothing compared to the deprivations of the camps. The shtetl’s social codes also differ from what she is used to in New Rochelle, America – one does not mix with goy children, and women do not socialise with men – and she has barely time to grasp them before being taken away to the camps. There, of course, an even more radically different set of rules applies. Thus the midden becomes a refuge for young children who are sent to death if spotted by the camp authorities. At the same time, the rules of life outside the camp must not be forgotten by the inmates if their humanity is to be preserved. When Hannah refers to one of the dead as having become a “schmatte”, a rag in the vocabulary used by the rulers of the camp, which Rivka has advised her to master17, she is slapped by Aunt Gitl: “ ‘That may be camp talk out there, but in here, we say the prayer for the dead properly, like good Jews.’ ”18

  • 19 M. Burgess, op. cit., p. 47.

10Like Hannah, Tom does not realise at once what has happened to him. He follows an old beggar woman called Rosey and her dog to Thowt It Farm, where he meets May, a rather strange little girl, with the same dog. The latter is called Winnie, after the Prime Minister, she informs him, but he has never heard of a PM called Winnie.19 Evacuees are not welcomed by local youths, we are told, but it is better to be taken for one than for a German spy, the only alternative explanation that people can come up with to account for his strange outfit and elocution. After stealing clothes from a washing-line to be less conspicuous, he is pursued by the police. May leads him to safety at Thowt It Farm, where he stays for a while with her and the farmer, Mr Nutter, who tells him her story.

11She was found after being buried for a week in a house in the Blitz. No one knew she existed and she is believed to be the daughter of the man who lived there and his own retarded daughter. Taken to a mental home where she pined away, she was eventually fetched by Mr Nutter, and gradually nursed back to life, although she retained some odd habits, such as sleeping in the dog’s kennel and rarely sitting at the table for meals. Later, Tarn learns that her habits saved her life: she survived the fire that destroyed the farm and killed Mr Nutter, whom she tried to save in vain. But she returned to a mental home, physically and psychologically scarred for life. As Tarn realises at the end of the book, she and old Rosey the beggar woman are one and the same.

12Burgess contrasts the “then” and “now,” in particular in the physical appearance of Cawldale. But an equally strong opposition is made between town and country. When Mr Nutter serves Tam a hearty breakfast, he expects him not to have had such a treat for a long time because of rationing. But what is weird to Tam is that the milk should taste of cows, and the bacon of pigs, and that the farmer should eat the fat of the bacon, as well as the dripping. He is quite easily won over to such old-fashioned eating ways, at odds with his mother’s rules. Wartime is thus paradoxically equated with the “good-old-times,” when food tasted better and was there to be enjoyed without any of today’s modern health-fads, although Mr Nutter duly comments: “bloody war,” after Tam volunteers the explanation that his parents are both dead.

  • 20 Ibid., p. 80.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 103.
  • 22 Ibid., p. 104.
  • 23 Ibid., p. 04.
  • 24 Ibid., p. 91.

13Life at Thowt It Farm is hard work, as Tam finds out when initiated to the art of milking and other farmhouse chores, but in true Arcadian tradition, the countryside is identified as the place of May’s rebirth. She herself acknowledges Mr Nutter as her saviour in a manner that almost calls for the word to be spelt with a capital “S”: “I was lost once. [...] Mr Nutter found me.”20 She tells Tarn, echoing “Amazing Grace”. Tarn’s arrival is seen by Mr Nutter as one more providential step in May’s recovery. Having diagnosed his protégée as “congenitally unloved” rather than “congenitally retarded”21 he is happy for Tam – as May’s “first friend”22 – to stay at the Farm, however little he knows about him. As he explains to the less enthusiastic Mrs Pickles, who looks after the household and hopes to marry the farmer one day: “God knows where he came from and that’s enough for me.”23 Hence also the title of the book: “He’s an angel for my May, that’s all I know.”24

  • 25 Ibid., pp. 9-80.
  • 26 Ibid., pp. 97-103.
  • 27 Ibid., p. 09.
  • 28 Ibid., p. 133.

14In this book, the war context is a pretext rather than a theme to be explored in its own right. Tarn gets to understand a little bit more about what is going on, like bombs and the blackout, but Burgess is more interested in the parallels between the two children’s psychological profiles. When May rescues him from the police, Tarn realizes he is “out of time, out of place, just like her.”25 Burgess criticises the inadequacy of the treatment of people who are “different” by the powers-that-be. Mr Nutter is eloquent in his angry denunciation of the conditions that prevailed in the home from which he rescued May26 but her wild ways and his own toleration of her oddities later come up for criticism by PC Dodd: “This is a farm, not a nut-house, you need a licence to run a nut-house. Someone’ll get hurt, you mark my words. She ought to be locked up, out of harm’s way.”27 Mr Nutter’s name is of course very deliberately chosen, as is the word “raved” to describe PC Dodd’s way of addressing him. Madness, it would seem, is a subjective notion. When May is returned to a home after Mr Nutter’s death, conditions have not improved: “It was a terrible place, just like Sam said – nasty bare rooms, locked doors, terrible food.”28 is how Mrs Pickles, whom Tarn has tracked back, puts it.

15In the modern setting, Old Rosey is initially presented as a victim of the Thatcherite “Care in the Community” policy by Mrs Caradine, a social worker and a good friend of Tarn’s mother’s:

  • 29 Ibid., pp. 22-23.

‘Poor thing – I wonder how she ended up like this... [...] those homes in the 40s and 50s were no better than prisons. People locked up all day with nothing to do – treated like idiots... And of course after forty or fifty years of that – well, look at her. No nice safe locked room, no medication-having to cope for herself and she can’t. So much for progress,’ added Mrs Caradine sarcastically. ‘Then we used to lock them up and let them rot; now we just leave them to rot on the street.’29

  • 30 Ibid., p. 155.

16While Tam’s circumstances are not as dramatic as May’s, he is depicted as the disturbed child of divorced parents, and shown to resent the life his father has made for himself in Bradford with his new partner and her kids, as well as his mother’s new persona as a working woman struggling to cope. The first time-slip occurs as he reluctantly leaves to visit his father. When he returns to the present, no one believes his story: like May, he is taken to be psychologically deranged, and sent to a therapist, who eventually pronounces there is nothing wrong with him. For all the negative portrayal of Mrs Caradine as a social worker, i.e. a professional nosey busybody, she is the one who tells Tarn that Mrs Pickles is still alive and that he should go and visit her. This enables him to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and to make a last bid to rescue May from the past: although too late to prevent the fire, he comes to her rescue afterwards30, returning the favour she had done him by helping him to escape from the police. Back in modem times, he invites Rosey to his house, much to his mother’s discomfort:

  • 31 Ibid., p. 157.

Mrs Sams felt deeply out of depth. Tarn was mad, the old woman was mad, she was mad for just standing there and not flinging her out. But look at the way the old woman was looking around her – alert, intelligent. It was as if the boy had brought her back from the dead.31

  • 32 Ibid., p. 158.
  • 33 Ibid., p. 158.
  • 34 Ibid., p. 158.

17As in the earlier interplay between Mr Nutter and PC Dodd, it is no longer clear who is mad and who is not. Mrs Sams sees Rosey looking her “[...] straight in the eye like a normal being ”32 and watches her son responding to what the old woman is saying, “[...] as if all was perfectly clear, and Mrs Sams was the odd one, the mad one.”33 The book finishes on a hopeful note as she resists the temptation to call the authorities and suggests instead that Rosey should be given a bath. The novel closes on these words: “Her son seemed wild. ‘Her name’s May,’he shouted. ‘May, May!’”34


  • 35 Robert Swindells, Blitzed, [2002], London, Corgi, 2003, p. 36.

18In Swindells’ Blitzed, George Wetherall is better equipped than Tam to face the trials of life in the Blitz. Not only is he very knowledgeable about WW2, a passion of his, he is aware from the start of what is happening.35 Such knowledge has its advantages:

  • 36 Ibid., p. 158

I know what everybody else knows and a lot only I know. I know when this war ends, for a start, and who wins. I’m probably the only guy in London who isn’t fretting about invasion. Mind you, I’ve plenty to fret about without that.36

  • 37 J. Yolen, op. cit., p. 46.
  • 38 Ibid., p. 93.

19This awareness of a relatively happy ending to the national scenario contrasts with Hannah’s knowledge of the Shoah, which proves ultimately useless, since her warnings fail to stop her fellow victims from following the soldiers to the trucks for transportation37, and since once in the camp she decides that she’d better keep her knowledge to herself so as not to deprive her companions of hope, “which is all they have.”38

20George’s knowledge, however, is not always a source of comfort:

  • 39 R. Swindells, op. cit., p. 51.

I’m scared stiff. I know from my reading that these shelters can’t withstand a direct hit. In 1940 hundreds of people’re blown to bits in these shelters.39

21It clues him to the many perils of his predicament:

  • 40 Ibid., p. 49.

Dangerous knowledge. Yes, I really will have to watch my mouth. I’ve read enough about the war to know that in 1940 everybody’s paranoid about spies. German spies, and also fifth-columnists: Brits who are secretly working for the enemy. [...] I’ve only to let something slip – something that doesn’t quite fit – and I could be in deep trouble.40

  • 41 Ibid., p. 39.
  • 42 Ibid., p. 40.
  • 43 Ibid., p. 66.
  • 44 Ibid., p. 72.

22Although he puts his foot in early on by ordering a burger, or failing that, a ham sandwich, from a street vendor41 – and trying to pay for it with decimal coins42 – George manages well on the whole. When children question him to check he is not a German spy, his answers are convincing enough. For the rest of his time in the past, he remains credible, except for the odd slip as when he enquires about washing-up liquid43 or fails to catch the reference to the Bisto kids44. He even manages to explain away his digital watch by claiming it is a prototype imported from America, but, like Tarn, he sounds strange to the others:

  • 45 Ibid., p. 92.

I’m not surprised she thinks I talk funny: I have noticed the difference myself, the way our speech has become Americanized over the years. I’d modify it if I could: talk like the others, but it’s impossible. I’d have to analyse every sentence before I said it.45

23Despite a friendly encounter with a group of soldiers, George’s first few days are tough:

  • 46 Ibid., p. 54.

I know nobody and nobody knows me, and what with that and the knowledge I have but must never divulge, I might as well come from another planet. And when somebody starts singing a song and everybody else joins in I feel so out of it that I have a bit of a blub.46

24The relief of being adopted by a group of children who fend for themselves under the authority of fourteen-year-old Sandra, whom they call ‘Ma’, is tremendous:

  • 47 Ibid., p. 64.

OK, so I’m still stuck in 1940 but hey: there’s grub, a roof, a sort of family. If I’m nice, if I pull my weight here, maybe they’ll let me stay till I find that flattened house and go back home.47

25His new found family is made up of children who have found themselves separated from their families. Nell tells George:

  • 48 Ibid., p. 66.

“[Ma] was evacuated, didn’t like where she was, came back to the smoke; couldn’t find her family, wandered about, saw Mouse disappearing down his hole. f...] Place was too big for one and Mouse wasn’t looking after hisself too well so she moved in and took him in hand. Then, one by one, the rest of us showed up. She’s got a big heart, see, Don’t like to think about kids in doorways. So here we are.’
‘And, you, Nell: what happened to you?’
‘Oh, my dad’s in the navy and my mum brought this fella home: Uncle Jim – ‘cept he ain’t, of course. He’s got flat feet so he can’t join up: that’s what he
says. He was always coming round and I couldn’t stand him so I blew.”48

  • 49 Ibid., p. 68.

26At fourteen, Ma is the only one old enough to earn money. She works in a second-hand clothes shop for someone they call Mr Rags, whom they believe to be Jewish but who turns out to be a Nazi spy, whose evil deeds the children eventually bring to light. Ma is very matter-of-fact about the situation. When George remarks “[...] you seem so... grown up,”49 she replies:

  • 50 Ibid., p. 69.

‘Yes, well, it’s this war, Frecks. The bombing. People’re getting killed or lost or wounded, and other people’re having to take on responsibilities they didn’t expect.’She smiles wryly. ‘I was looking forward to being fourteen so I could get a job and go dancing at the Locarno, I never thought I’d be mother to seven kids: not yet anyway.’50

  • 51 Ibid., p. 63.

27This quote is a useful reminder that in those pre-Butler act days, childhood was officially over at 14, when compulsory schooling stopped. Nevertheless, Ma’s extraordinary maturity and sense of responsibility are repeatedly underlined, as is the authority she has over the others. Hers is not an easy task, as she combines the role of the breadwinner: “ ‘It’s me’s got to feed’em all, keep’em respectable. How many kites d’you think I can fill on fifteen bob a week?’”51 and that of the homemaker with the standard working-class matriarchal concern for cleanliness and respectability. This prompts her to buy George a coat:

  • 52 Ibid., p. 92.

‘I’d sooner spend the money than have you round looking like an urchin, showing me up.’
She’s fourteen, talks forty, but I aren’t half glad I found her.

  • 53 Ibid., p. 138.

28A young woman of principles, she insists on a fortnightly change of underwear for all the kids, although washing and drying clothes are no simple tasks in their circumstances.53 As George comments:

  • 54 Ibid., p. 138.

It says a lot about what a together person Ma is that she can be bothered, in the middle of all the hassle we cause her, to see we keep ourselves decent.54

29The same concern for decency – an arch British notion – commands that food should be honestly acquired. When George, who is rather remarkably well-read for a 2002 ten-year-old, alludes to similarities between their set up and Oliver Twist’s, she angrily retorts:

  • 55 Ibid., p. 69.

‘I take a drop of Guinness and it makes me moody, but I’m not Mister Fagin. We get our grub by paying for it, same as everybody else. Anyone who nicks grub when there’s a war on deserves to be shot.’55

30Ma’s remarkable maturity is compounded by the children’s willingness to obey her and perform the chores they are assigned or assign themselves. This is indeed a remarkably disciplined household, probably because all share the same motivation: to avoid being discovered and sent to a home. George’s conversation with a friendly soldier shows that the sight of children separated from their families was only too common in wartime London. His advice is:

  • 56 Ibid., p. 84.

‘[...] if there’s nobody to look after you you’d be better going to one of the rest centres, let’em find you somewhere to live; winter’s coming: try sleeping rough then and you’ll perish.’56

31but the children are unanimous in their determination to avoid such a fate. Wotsis explains:

‘Grownups find out there’s kids looking out for theirselves, have’em in a home so fast their feet won’t touch.’
I nod. ‘And that’s bad, is it?’

  • 57 Ibid., p. 74.

‘Bad?’He looks at me. Ever been in a home, Frecks?’
‘They hits you for nuffink. Locks you up. Gives you porridge with black beetles in it. Mate of mine at school was in one. He told me.’

32Swindell’s depiction of institutional care is thus no more positive than Burgess’s in An Angel for May. Swindells, however, is far more systematic in his attempts to explore – with and through George – the specificities of the wartime context and its repercussions on children and childhood. While initially sharing Tarn’s sense of alienation from his environment, George is both sufficiently knowledgeable and streetwise to adapt quickly to his new settings. As the first person narrator of the story, he shares his discoveries with the reader, whom he regularly addresses in a direct way. Some confirm his bookish assumptions about the war, while others lead him to somewhat revise or at least qualify his former perceptions. Back home, as can be expected, he is grateful for his creature comforts:

  • 58 Ibid., p. 172.

I bless my luck every time mum sticks a great plate of grub in front of me, and when I fall into bed and pull that cosy duvet up around my ears.58

33No amount of reading could indeed have prepared him adequately for the experience of going hungry, or at least having to make do with a very limited kind of diet:

  • 59 Ibid., p. 90.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful: without Ma there’d be no dinner at all, and even she can’t get us meat without a ration book. I know all this. It’s just that potatoes by themselves don’t exactly excite the palate, especially if there isn’t any salt, which there isn’t.59

34This particular meal prompts some nostalgic yearning for his mother’s cooking; later he generalizes his comments on what the books don’t or can’t tell you:

  • 60 Ibid., p. 120.

I’ve always been mad on World War Two, but I guess that’s because I only knew about bits of it. I mean, the books and videos mention the shortage of grub and clothes, I’m not saying they don’t, but it takes like five seconds to mention it: you don’t feel what it’s like to eat nothing but boiled veg day in, day out; to walk the streets in a coat that was made for some tall, fat guy who probably died in it. It doesn’t tell you how it feels to pee in a pot four guys have peed it or worse already, or to play Snakes and flipping Ladders every night for four hours in the dark while guys fly around dropping bombs on you.60

35But it is not only the material realities of war that come under new light. George continues:

  • 61 Ibid., pp. 120-1.

That’s not the worst, though. If you’ve watched or read much about the war, you’re bound to have come across some mention of Dunkirk Spirit. It’s what everybody in Britain is supposed to have been full of during the war: a feeling of all being together in the same boat, having the same job to do, and being determined to pull together with cheery optimism till it was done. I’ve heard it mentioned loads of times and I’ve believed in it too, till now. It was hearing yesterday that there are people who’ll go through the pockets of the dead to get ration books and other valuable papers that’s spoilt it from me. Their own people. That’s the biggest downer.61

  • 62 As first exposed by Angus Calder.
  • 63 Ibid., p. 100.
  • 64 Ibid., p. 102.
  • 65 Ibid., p. 103.

36George’s trip to the past is shown to open his eyes to the limits of the Myth of the Blitz.62 As a witness and narrator, he claims to be offering his audience a more realistic and complete version of what the war was like. When he is about to tell his readers about his expedition to find out what has happened to his mate Shrapnel, after the latter failed to return on the previous night, he warns: “[...] it’s a real war story, the sort they never show on telly. Skip the next bit if you like: I won’t blame you,”63 then proceeds: “I walk west till I come to the railway, then follow it north towards the worst sight I’ll ever see in my life,”64 but even he falls short of describing it in full: “I won’t go into details: I don’t think I could. I’ll just say what happened and you’ll probably be able to imagine the rest.”65

  • 66 Ibid., p. 166.
  • 67 Ibid., p. 171.

37Shrapnel’s death precludes a truly happy ending. So does the fact that the children’s success in unmasking Mr Rags’s nefarious activities brings their life together to an end, as the authorities finally take charge: “I try to think of it as us sacrificing our freedom that others might be free, but it’s not easy,”66 says George: the myth no longer operates. When it’s his turn to be asked for identification, he presses the date button on his watch and is sent back to the present, but he has had time to hear Sandra’s full name, and to realise that she is none other but an old neighbour of his: “Which means the gallant lass who took me in is the silly old bag whose garden I loved to wreck, and that’s what time will do.”67 Despite this irreverent comment, the final chapter has George invite her to talk to his class about the war:

  • 68 Ibid., p. 172.

‘War is mostly sad,’ she says.
When she leaves I ask to be excused and hurry after her along the corridor. I still don’t know what I’ll say but I know this is my last chance. If I don’t speak now it’ll stay bottled up forever, doing weird things to my mind. She hears my footsteps and turns and it just comes out:
‘Thanks for the George Raft coat, Ma.’
‘That’s all right, Frecks,’ she says.

38Thus is their wartime connection mutually acknowledged in the modern setting.


  • 69 Jackie French, Hitler’s Daughter [1999], London, Harper Collins, 2001, p. 8.
  • 70 Ibid., p. 8.
  • 71 Ibid., p. 11.

39The final book I want to discuss is Jackie French’s Hitler’s Daughter. There is no time-slip in this novel, but the link between past and present is established through an embedded narrative. In modern time Australia, a girl called Anna tells a story to the group of children who daily travel with her on the bus to and from school. This is a ritual initiated for the benefit of Little Tracey, the youngest of the gang, but this time the Story Game takes a different turn: Anna herself chooses the theme, contrary to tradition, as Mark points out, and with hesitation announces that the story will be about “Hitler’s daughter”. From the start, Mark feels this is going to be different, although he finds it difficult to word his objections. “[...] we can’t have a story about something that’s not real”69 is how he puts it first, then he rephrases it for himself: “It did seem different to make up stuff about a real person. But there was no way he could put his feeling into words.”70 The story has an uneasy start, as Tracey tries to inject some fantasy elements of her own, while Ben, who has done a school project on WW2, wants Heidi – the name they have agreed on – to take part in military action with Rommel. Anna is about to give up: “‘Look, this isn’t going to work. Hitler’s daughter was a silly idea. Forget I started it, okay? How about another story? Tracey, you choose.’”71 but Tracey won’t agree, so Anna carries on:

‘No one knew he had ever married, and no one knew about Heidi. She lived with Fräulein Gelber at Berchtesgaden – that was where Hitler had a house in the country and that was the only world she knew.’

40Her seclusion is then explained by her physical appearance:

‘[...] she had a birthmark. [...] A great red blotch across her face. And one of her legs was shorter than the other so she limped... just a little bit.
But Hitler wanted to breed a perfect race – the Aryan race it was called. Children with blue eyes and blonde hair, tall children who could run and jump and conquer the world. [...]’
‘Then he didn’t love her.’ Little Tracey’s voice was very small.
‘Of course not,’said Mark. ‘He was Hitler. I bet Hitler never loved anyone.’
‘I don’t know if he loved her or not,’said Anna.
‘She always hoped he did.’

  • 72 Ibid., p. 27.
  • 73 Ibid., p. 28.

41With those initial words, Anna has hooked Mark’s curiosity. On the following day, he starts quizzing his mother about Hitler and the war, a scene repeated with variations many times in the book, and he pressurises Anna into carrying on with the story, suggesting the beginning his schoolmaster set him for an essay: “As far back as I can remember.”72 The following chapter duly starts: “As far back as Heidi could remember there had been Fraulein Gelber.”73

  • 74 Ibid., p. 39.
  • 75 Ibid., p. 37.

42The story unfolds of a lonely childhood. Heidi has little contact with the outside world, and despite Mark’s unwillingness to believe it at first, little knowledge of what her father – who is Duffi to her and not the Führer – does, or of what is happening in Germany, although her governess dutifully makes her read from his book, which she finds “boring”.74 It is only through conversations with Fraulein Gelber and other women running the household that she snatches occasional information on the Russian front, the fate of mentally retarded people, or that of the Jews. What information she gets is partial, given that she is surrounded by faithful supporters of the Führer, or at least people who guard their mouths in her presence.75 Early on, Frau Mundt explains her dire situation in the twenties, and what Hitler meant to her and many others:

  • 76 Ibid., pp. 29-30.

‘[..·] he wanted to be on the side of the unemployed – that was people like us, like me and Willi; he would save us, he would get us jobs, he would make Germany proud and free again [...]
‘No one else promised what he did. He was the only one who gave us hope. This good man... and everything that he promised, he has given us.’76

43The same Frau Mundt explains later that one of the kitchen maids is upset because she has just learnt that her mentally retarded sister is dead.

‘And now she thinks they killed her sister there.’
‘Did they kill her?’whispered Heidi.
‘No of course not. Of course they didn’t,’said Frau Mundt, just a bit too firmly. ‘Freya has just been listening to stories-silly stories, you know how people talk. But sometimes, sometimes things like that have to happen. It’s for the good of everyone.
We cannot have weaklings in the new German race. People like Freya’s sister mustn’t be allowed to have children. It is like with the Jews.’
‘What are Jews?’asked Heidi. [...]
Frau Mundt bit her lip. ‘You should ask Fräulein Gelber about that. But it is all nonsense what they say. Nonsense. The Jews are simply sent to work, that’s all. The Jews are rich, everyone knows that; it’s time they were made to work.’

44Fräulein Gelber basically confirms:

  • 77 Ibid., p. 40.

‘The Jews are different. They are different from us.
That is why the Führer wants to separate them. So they can’t endanger the lifeblood of the Germans, so they can’t weaken it.’
‘They are sent to camps. Places to work.’

45It is only much later that Heidi is led to reconsider the question after learning that one of the local farmers has been arrested for hiding his sister and her Jewish husband.

  • 78 Ibid., p. 94.

‘If the Jews just go to camps to work, why did Herr Henssel have to hide them? Are the camps so terrible?’ asked Heidi.
Frau Leib shrugged. She didn’t care what the camps were like. The things that were important happen in her village, or to people she knew.

46Frau Leib, after all, is the wife of a long-time member of the Nazi party.

47By then Heidi has developed some empathy with the Jews:

‘What were Jews like? That’s what no one seemed able to tell her. Just that they were different.
‘Well, she was different too. And somehow she built up a picture of Jews in her mind. Jews were people just like her, with red marks on their faces and one leg just a little short. Different people, who had to be hidden away."

48She even plans to hide some and steals food for them but none ever comes. Once again, Mark is indignant that she left it at that:

  • 79 Ibid., p. 100.

‘But surely she could have done something else?’demanded Mark.
‘What? Locked herself in her room and said she wasn’t coming out or wouldn’t eat till they shut down the concentration camps?’
‘Something like that,’said Mark lamely.
‘What good would that have done?’asked Anna fiercely. ‘Do you think they would have paid any attention?’
‘But she was Hitler’s daughter!’
‘But no-one knew that, and besides, who listens to kids?’demanded Anna. ‘Especially not back then. Even today...’
She was right, thought Mark. She’d done what she could, even if it was no use at all.
‘Maybe it would have been different when she grew up,’he said at last. ‘She could have organised protests then. People would have listened to her if she said he was Hitler’s daughter.’
‘Maybe said Anna. ‘But that never happened.
There was never any chance of its happening.’

49What happens is that Heidi joins Hitler in the Bunker, is deserted by Fräulein Gelber, and eventually expelled as an unknown girl by her father for her own good (such is at least the interpretation she hopes is right). Adopted by a family who have lost their own daughter, she eventually moves to Australia with them. She is, we understand, Anna’s own grandmother.

50The exchange between Anna and Mark quoted above is typical of the issues raised by the story. Mark’s initial knowledge of the period is limited, as is Ben’s, even after the completion of his school project on WW2 and Hitler:

‘He was this bloke in World War Two [...] they were the enemy in the war. Well, Japan was too. But Hitler had all these Brownshirts and the Gestapo and had concentration camps and things like that and everyone had to go “Sieg Heil!” or “Heil Hitler!”, you know, like in those movies on TV.’

51Mark’s curiosity prompts him to ask his mother, whose answer is not that much more sophisticated:

  • 80 Ibid., p. 22.

“Well, he was a monster of course. [...] all the concentration camps... and he killed all those Jews... six million, I think, that’s why it’s called the Holocaust.”80

  • 81 Ibid., p. 23.

52This is apparently news to Mark, who is puzzled about the reasons behind the policy, but is only given some vague reference to the Aryan race, and to Hitler’s spurning of Black athlete Jesse Owens.81

53Later on, he turns to his Dad, with the same unsatisfactory results:

  • 82 Ibid., p. 43.

Dad looked at him a bit helplessly. “It wasn’t just the Jews he killed,” he said. “It was anyone who disagreed with him, too.”82

  • 83 Ibid., p. 44.
  • 84 Ibid., pp. 72-73.

54What bothers Mark is not simply historical accuracy but the ethical dimension of the problem. As Anna’s story unfolds, he is increasingly questioning his parents and other adults about a number of issues. Would his father still love him if he turned out to be a mass murderer?83 Do kids necessarily duplicate their parents’ behaviour and are they in any way responsible for the evil their parents may have done?84 Most crucially he wonders:

  • 85 Ibid., p. 76.

People should do what they thought was right. But what if you thought was right, was wrong?
Doing what everyone else did was no help either. If there was one thing that all that Hitler stuff showed, it was that most of a whole country could be wrong?

  • 86 Ibid., pp. 66-70.
  • 87 Ibid., p. 84.
  • 88 Ibid., p. 22.
  • 89 Ibid., p. 89.

55The questioning of what Heidi did or did not know, could or should have done, and of the behaviour of all German people, is clearly shown to have bearings on more contemporary issues. As Mark, thanks to Anna, gradually realises the complexities of potential conflict between personal loyalties and moral judgement, and grows aware that Hitler cannot be held solely responsible for what happened, contrary what Ben and even his mother suggested initially, he is increasingly bothered about the notions of individual and collective responsibility, as well as the relevance of the past to present situations. He – and the reader with him – reflects about existing prejudices against Asians, as expressed by Ben’s father who sees them all as criminals, despite statistical evidence, as Mrs Latter points out, only to embark on her own happy generalizations about men.86 He also becomes aware that people are currently being exterminated in “that place with the funny name”87, presumably Rwanda. When questioned, his Dad confesses that he has not really been following this particular news, much as his mother had earlier admitted switching the TV to another channel when shown pictures of the camps.88 When he further asks her whether she would have protested against Hitler, knowing the risks, she states: “I’m not interested in that sort of stuff”.89

  • 90 Ibid., p. 85.
  • 91 Ibid., p. 85.

56Mark thus manages to rile both his parents in one day since he previously had pursued his trend of thoughts to the point of asking his dad if the family farm had not been stolen from the Aborigines.90 His father’s answer is first to point out that “no one thought of it as stealing” then, and to blame the school for putting that kind of ideas into his son’s head. “It’d make more sense if they taught everyone to mind their own business. Do-gooders poking their nose where it does not concern them.”91 is his somewhat chilling final comment.

  • 92 Ibid., p. 90.

57Both Mark’s parents display an indifference to – or a lack of understanding of – the issues raised by their son. Although he privately concedes that he might not like his mother to behave like Mrs Latter – “listening to the news all the time and going to demonstrations and signing petitions ”92 – or would not want her to risk going to prison, should Australia become totalitarian, their attitude does little to appease the disturbances created by Anna’s story. Those manifest themselves in a dream which is crucial to the understanding of the book. He imagines Hitler back to life by the creek, seducing everyone including his friends Ben and Bonzo, lured by the uniforms and the opportunity for exciting action.

‘You are all my children,’ screamed Hitler. ‘None of you really care. None of you question. You are all Hitler’s children.’

  • 93 J. Yolen, op. cit., p. 64.

58In this sequence and in the rest of the book, Jackie French makes it clear that in her view, the evocation of Nazi Germany is relevant (or should be) to more contemporary contexts and issues, including Australia at a time when the xenophobic nationalist party was gaining influence. By insisting that the evil that happened under Hitler should not be seen as a one-off event located in a specific time and place, she echoes Yolen whose Rabbi replies to Hannah, when she suggests running away: “There will always be Nazis among us”.93

59Through the characters of both Heidi and Mark, French conveys a sense of the powerlessness of children, trapped by their love for their parents, irrespective of what the latter do, condemned to being voices which no one will listen to, except, paradoxically, in the case of totalitarian regimes which trained children to spy and inform on their families. This sense of powerlessness is also found in Hannah, who cannot save her companions despite her knowledge of the fate that awaits them, as well as – in more individualised terms – Tam, who cannot prevent the fire from happening, just as May is unable to save Mr Nutter from the flames. As for George, his sense of helpless guilt as he leaves his wartime companions to be dealt with by the authorities is also stressed in the chapters following his return home.

60Apart from being powerless, children are shown to be essentially lonely creatures, and not only when they happen to be transported to alien contexts. Even in their original backgrounds, the protagonists tend to be surrounded by adults who appear to be at worst hostile, at best indifferent to them, or at least unable or unwilling to understand their concerns, with the glaring exception of Mr Nutter in relation to May.

61Powerlessness and loneliness combine to make for a rather depressing representation of childhood, regardless of the context in which it takes place, although it is only fair to say that the stories also emphasise the resilience of children. In contrast, a more optimistic assessment of the power of fiction is suggested. With the possible exception of Burgess for whom the choice of a WW2 setting seems to have less deliberate relevance, and despite George’s comments on the unreliability of war stories and movies, the books by their very existence testify to a belief in the part fiction can play in transgenerational transmission. Yolen explicitly vindicates her work as part of the imperative necessity for younger generations to be faithful to the memories of their ancestors’ pasts. Swindells pleas for a more realistic appreciation of what WW2 was really like, and obviously hopes that his readers’eyes will have been opened by George’s story, just as his have been. French’s novel is in keeping with her avowed belief in children’s literature as having a role to perform in the necessary exposure of young readers to both historical and ethical questions. The protagonists in each tale have indeed been transformed through their experiences, but the books leave open the question of how useful the lessons will be. Hannah has acknowledged her roots, but her newfound integration in the Jewish community through enforced remembering may be construed as having the potential to be restrictive rather than liberating: the reluctance of some survivors to discuss their experiences with their children was often rooted in their unwillingness to burden them with their own harrowing past experiences. George has come to a more balanced appreciation of the realities of war, not just its glamorous heroics, but its sordid aspects, too, while Mark has gained more insight in WW2 than his contemporaries or indeed his parents seem to have, but not everyone would unreservedly accept French’s suggestion of parallelisms between Nazi Germany and the events in Rwanda or the treatment of Aborigines. In historical terms, her book is also likely to be perceived as less immediately relevant to British readers than to her original Australian ones, whereas in moral ones, her preoccupation with the stimulation of children’s ethical awareness and critical mind, even vis-à-vis adult figures of authorities, and her message of toleration have universal value. The reception of her book in both countries would deserve a study in itself, as would that of The Devil’s Arithmetic outside the American Jewish community that was presumably its prime target.

  • 94 Mark’s father points out that indifference to the Aborigines' rights was once the rule, while Georg (...)

62The powerlessness of children puts even greater responsibility on adults to behave well, since they, presumably, have the power to act. Those who do wrong or do nothing to prevent wrong from being done – the bystanders – are therefore implicitly to blame. Although the books show awareness of the historical relativity of moral values,94 they portray a rather grim view of adults. The faith in the power of fiction shown by Yolen, Swindells, and French suggests that they believe not only that their protagonists will be changed by their experiences, but that the readers who to various degrees identify with them will be alerted to the flaws of adult behaviour encountered in their past or present surroundings. While this is in itself no guarantee that they will as adults behave in what the books suggest is an acceptable fashion – i.e. one that favours caring for others rather than opting for individualistic indifference – the authors’ hopeful assumption seems to be that today’s powerless children may grow into historically and morally aware adults, both willing and able to act in accordance with their principles.



GARDINER Juliet, The Children’s War, London, Portrait, 2005.

BURGESS Melvin, An Angel for May [1992], Harmondsworth, Puffin, 1994.

SWINDELLS Robert, Blitzed, [2002], London, Corgi, 2003.

FRENCH Jackie, Hitler's Daughter [1999], London, Harper Collins, 2001.

YOLEN Jane, The Devil’s Arithmetic [USA, 1988], Harmondsworth, Puffin, 1998.


1 Juliet Gardiner, The Children's War, London, Portrait, 2005, p. 6.

2 Ibid., p. 7.

3 J. Gardiner, op. cit., p. 6.

4 Rose-May Pham Dinh, “Devoir de mémoire, droit au pardon: le poids du passé dans la littérature de jeunesse contemporaine”, in Douglas Virginie (dir.), Perspectives contemporaines du roman pour la jeunesse, actes du colloque Tendances de la littérature de jeunesse britannique contemporaine, Institut International Charles Perrault, Eaubonne (décembre 2000), Paris, L’Harmattan, 2003, pp. 245-263.

5 Jane Yolen, The Devil’s Arithmetic [USA, 1988], Harmondsworth, Puffin, p. 1.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., p. 163.

8 Ibid., p. 159.

9 Ibid., p. 164.

10 Ibid., p. 164.

11 Ibid., p. 3.

12 Ibid., p. 167.

13 Ibid., p. 169.

14 See Martin Evans & Ken Lunn (eds). War & Memory in the Twentieth Century. Oxford, Berg. 1997.

15 Melvin Burgess, An Angel for May [1992], Harmonds worth, Puffin, 1994, p. 44.

16 Ibid., p. 54.

17 J. Yolen, op. cit., pp. 118 & 128.

18 Ibid., p. 134.

19 M. Burgess, op. cit., p. 47.

20 Ibid., p. 80.

21 Ibid., p. 103.

22 Ibid., p. 104.

23 Ibid., p. 04.

24 Ibid., p. 91.

25 Ibid., pp. 9-80.

26 Ibid., pp. 97-103.

27 Ibid., p. 09.

28 Ibid., p. 133.

29 Ibid., pp. 22-23.

30 Ibid., p. 155.

31 Ibid., p. 157.

32 Ibid., p. 158.

33 Ibid., p. 158.

34 Ibid., p. 158.

35 Robert Swindells, Blitzed, [2002], London, Corgi, 2003, p. 36.

36 Ibid., p. 158

37 J. Yolen, op. cit., p. 46.

38 Ibid., p. 93.

39 R. Swindells, op. cit., p. 51.

40 Ibid., p. 49.

41 Ibid., p. 39.

42 Ibid., p. 40.

43 Ibid., p. 66.

44 Ibid., p. 72.

45 Ibid., p. 92.

46 Ibid., p. 54.

47 Ibid., p. 64.

48 Ibid., p. 66.

49 Ibid., p. 68.

50 Ibid., p. 69.

51 Ibid., p. 63.

52 Ibid., p. 92.

53 Ibid., p. 138.

54 Ibid., p. 138.

55 Ibid., p. 69.

56 Ibid., p. 84.

57 Ibid., p. 74.

58 Ibid., p. 172.

59 Ibid., p. 90.

60 Ibid., p. 120.

61 Ibid., pp. 120-1.

62 As first exposed by Angus Calder.

63 Ibid., p. 100.

64 Ibid., p. 102.

65 Ibid., p. 103.

66 Ibid., p. 166.

67 Ibid., p. 171.

68 Ibid., p. 172.

69 Jackie French, Hitler’s Daughter [1999], London, Harper Collins, 2001, p. 8.

70 Ibid., p. 8.

71 Ibid., p. 11.

72 Ibid., p. 27.

73 Ibid., p. 28.

74 Ibid., p. 39.

75 Ibid., p. 37.

76 Ibid., pp. 29-30.

77 Ibid., p. 40.

78 Ibid., p. 94.

79 Ibid., p. 100.

80 Ibid., p. 22.

81 Ibid., p. 23.

82 Ibid., p. 43.

83 Ibid., p. 44.

84 Ibid., pp. 72-73.

85 Ibid., p. 76.

86 Ibid., pp. 66-70.

87 Ibid., p. 84.

88 Ibid., p. 22.

89 Ibid., p. 89.

90 Ibid., p. 85.

91 Ibid., p. 85.

92 Ibid., p. 90.

93 J. Yolen, op. cit., p. 64.

94 Mark’s father points out that indifference to the Aborigines' rights was once the rule, while George is shocked to find that his Blitz mates are happy to tell anti-Semitic jokes.


Lectures in British area studies at Paris 13. Her thesis was on British children’s reading patterns in the 80s. She is particularly interested in WW2 fiction for children and adolescents, as part of the process of celebration/reconstruction/revision of the period, and has published a number of articles on the topic.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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