Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Book Review: Back Home

(Still not a Fair Trade Book, although while writing this review I was sure it was old enough to be one!)


Title: Back Home

Author: Michelle Magorian

Author's web page, which should be used to buy the book if possible: http://www.michellemagorian.com/back-home/

Date: 1984

Publisher: Harper Collins

ISBN: 0-06-440411-0

Length: 375 pages

Quote: “‘I guess I had it lucky in the States,’ said Rusty guiltily.”

Rusty is a red-haired English girl who has spent the war years of the 1940s with a nice, arty family in Vermont. Her extroverted personality has been encouraged; she’s learned to push herself forward, boast, emote, and chatter to boys as eagerly as to girls.

Rusty thought she wanted to live in her own home with her own parents again, but her old London neighborhood is still unlivable . The people she remembers have scattered. She hardly even recognizes her parents, who are now living with her grumpy grandmother. Emotionally a child, Rusty wasn’t noticed as precocious in her American seventh grade class, but she’s beginning to have curves and is considered dangerously precocious in her English all-girls school. Rusty doesn’t even know why her chattering with boys is considered disgraceful—until a dorm mate asks whether she’s pregnant.

Among other period pieces in this book, there’s a touching scene in which Rusty thinks her mother’s having trained as a mechanic is unladylike, and her mother thinks Rusty’s interest in woodworking is unladylike, but they talk it out and agree that a little honest work won’t affect the femininity of either one.

Their social status is another matter. Rusty and her mother welcome the breakdown of rigid “class” distinctions between landowners, storekeepers, and laborers. Rusty’s father and grandmother don’t. And for Rusty’s little brother, part of his father’s idea of masculinity is being beaten, bullied, and “fagged” (it meant primarily being used as a servant by older boys, and wasn’t supposed to imply homosexual abuse, but  sometimes it did that too) by older boys at an all-boys school. Rusty’s father doesn’t even approve of Rusty’s feeling empathetic and protective toward her brother.

All this socioemotional drama takes place in a bombed-out land where food, fuel, fabric, even hot water bottles are rationed. Everyone is in fact malnourished. The ones who’ve spent the war years in England think they’re “used to it,” but Rusty’s child acquaintances have had their physical development delayed by malnutrition, and one of her adult acquaintances dies.

Although it’s not the most enjoyable read for either children or adults, this is a book families need to read, at least once, because it clarifies the big difference between the meanings of “baby-boomer” in the U.S. and the U.K. U.S. baby-boomers grew up in the Waste Age, when having every piece of faddy junk that came along was considered patriotic. British baby-boomers probably weren’t actually hungry for very long, but didn’t grow up wealthy and extravagant; it took years for the economies of the countries where the war was actually fought to recover.

If, as was recently proclaimed, American women think British accents are sexy, my guess is that it has something to do with the reality-based stereotype of British baby-boomers as tough, resourceful, and frugal. (Personally I’d have to ask which British accent we’re talking about.) Saying “Righto” in the right way stereotypes a man as a First Class Scout who could probably tie a neat tourniquet, using his left hand and teeth, if his right hand were blown off, and compose a clever limerick about explosions while driving himself to the hospital.

Brits can’t be blamed for exploiting this stereotype...when certain U.S. citizens seem determined to deny themselves and their children a moment’s opportunity to cultivate hardiness, even by waiting until mealtime to eat, and then project the fortitude they lack onto this fantasy about British people. However, those of us who admire Britishness in general, as distinct from a particular individual friend who happens to be British, might do better to work on stiffening our own upper lips. Back Home provides several practical suggestions for this exercise. Rusty, despite her scatterbrained “outgoing” temperament, is growing up with fortitude. She seems to deserve an even happier ending than she gets.

It should probably be mentioned that a Disney movie version of Back Home exists. As a small child I liked Disney movies. Around age seven or eight I began to notice that--maybe it was a deliberate effort to encourage movie watchers to buy the books?--all of the books on which Disney movies were based were always much better than the movies. 

As long as this book's been out and as successful as it's been, it's still available directly from the author as a new book (new edition, new jacket picture.) To buy Back Home online, use the link above to michellemagorian.com.