Whistling in the Dark – Shirley Hughes, Candlewick Press, 2017
There are some English language authors better known on one side of the pond than the other. One of these is Shirley Hughes, born in North West England in 1927. The author of more than fifty books, Hughes is best known for stories for young readers, which she both writes and illustrates. Her culturally and generationally diverse world of mums and dads caring for young children is appealing and realistic, even comforting. Hughes’s series about the siblings Alfie and Annie Rose , and her enchanting rhymes and pictures of everyday life in other books for the youngest readers, have won her many awards in her native Great Britain. Only two years ago, this talented octogenarian decided to try something new, and wrote two middle grade novels set during World War II.
Whistling in the Dark describes the challenges facing Joan, a fourteen -year-old girl growing up, as Hughes herself did, near Liverpool during the years when German bombers threatened the lives and security of her community, as well as that of all the Allied nations. The value of this compelling story is immeasurable, both for its historical setting and for its examination of an adolescent’s resilience under intense pressures. The book is dedicated to “those brave men who served in the British Merchant Navy during the Second World War,” a large number of whom lost their lives when the Germans sunk ships that were bringing crucial supplies of food, armaments, and other necessities to their country.
In the novel, Joan’s father had been killed before the War, when the ship on which he served caught fire. Joan’s loss, therefore, is a sort of warning of the catastrophic losses which would affect many more families in the coming months and years. After his death, Joan’s mum had temporarily become “too ill with sadness to manage,” while Joan herself gradually began to remember her father as a distant image, one which she compares to the British painter J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting of a burning ship.
I found it dissonant to read Joan’s admission that “If she was being really honest, she didn’t miss Dad so much now,” not because I found the idea to be implausible, but because the rest of the book does not support her claim. Joan refers specifically to the shared experience of people who suffered similarly terrible losses, those “who had also suffered that first sickening moment of opening the telegram and the long -drawn-out misery that followed.” It is almost as if the author was ambivalent about making her character carry that adult burden which had incapacitated her strong mother.
One of the most difficult insults to injury added to Joan’s life is Captain Ronnie Harper Jones, an unctuous and easily mocked figure who serves with the Army Catering Corps, rather than seeing combat. He is attracted to Joan’s mother, who seems not so much in love with him, but willing to accept a less than romantic attachment for the security it will bring her family. Joan and her siblings see Captain Jones quite differently, as a self-centered opportunist on the verge of upsetting the tenuous stability of their lives. Hughes develops this part of the narrative in a surprising way. In fact, several characters in Whistling in the Dark, including the family of Joan’s affluent and admired best friend Doreen, make the subtle point that people are often not what they seem, and that war increases the possibilities of this sometimes-bitter lesson.
There are many children’s novels about the impact of World War II on the lives of ordinary people. Shirley Hughes’s Whistling in the Dark stands out for its honest expression of ambiguities, and for the value of Hughes’s testimony. When Joan becomes frustrated at her mother’s references to the dangers faced by the Merchant Navy, she thinks to herself, “As if we needed to be reminded of that.” Of course, young readers do need to be reminded. The fact that the author herself experienced the War does not automatically grant her book greater resonance. Yet Hughes’s great skills as a narrator, along with the authenticity of her voice, make Joan’s story as riveting as the newsreels which unfolded before Joan’s eyes.