Caldicott Place (by Noel Streatfeild)

I do like re-reading my Noel Streatfeild books. They were my comfort reading as a teenager… and remain so even today. I acquired ‘Caldicott Place’ at the end of January 1974 and have probably read it at least once every nine or ten years since then. Possibly more. Yet despite having read it at least five or six times, I had mostly forgotten the storyline until I was about a quarter of the way through.

I read it almost in one sitting. Streatfeild’s books were intended for older children or young teens, and it only has about 160 pages. But I was caught up in the characters immediately.

The Johnstone family were comfortably off and happy, we learn, until their father has a nasty car accident. Bill, the eldest boy, is almost thirteen when this tragedy happens. Carol is eleven-and-a-half, and Tim is nearly eight. They have a dog called Jelly whom they all love, but he is primarily Tim’s dog. Bill is something of a science nerd, and Carol is a ballet dancer; not one of Streatfeild’s utterly focussed and brilliant potential ballerinas, but quite talented. She hopes to do some kind of dancing professionally when she’s an adult.

The car accident was not their father’s fault, but he is unconscious for a while, and when he starts to recover from his physical injuries, he seems to have changed personality. No longer loving and enthusiastic, he seems to see everyone through a fog of apathy. Carol and Tim aren’t even allowed to see him in hospital; Bill and his mother are very worried. Finances prove a problem too, so they have to move somewhere small and poky so that their mother can go out to work rather than looking after their large house. That means different schools, different dancing classes, and - worst of all - Jelly has to be left with the people who rent their house.

Then something astonishing happens - something so unexpected that the family doesn’t know quite what to make of it, and I hadn’t remembered it coming. There’s the chance of moving out into the countryside, so long as they are willing to take on the added responsibility of three paying guests, children of around the same ages as the three Johnstones, who for various reasons have no real home.

It’s a character-based story, with the underlying theme of their father’s slow, often tentative moves in positive directions. There are some caricatures, of course, and while the children are fairly three-dimensional, they have similarities to children in Streatfeild’s other books. Sophie, the youngest of the paying guests, for instance, reminded me a lot of Lydia in the ‘Gemma’ series.

There’s gentle humour in some of the interactions, and one or two parts that are unexpectedly moving. It’s dated, of course; published in the 1960s there are overtones of sexism and racism and a definite class-consciousness. But Streatfeild’s stories aren’t concerned with these; they are a (probably realistic and most likely unconscious) background to some of the scenes rather than anything deliberate.

Recommended to anyone from the age of about eleven and upwards who enjoys a good, character-driven story about changing circumstances.

Recommended. Often found in charity shops, but reprinted from time to time. Currently in print on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review by Sue F copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

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