When the Siren Wailed (by Noel Streatfeild)

I have loved Noel Streatfeild’s books since childhood, particularly her classic ‘Ballet Shoes’, although my teenage favourites were the ‘Gemma’ series of four books. In recent years I discovered that she had written several other books which I had not previously come across, and have managed to acquire most of them.

I first read ‘When the Siren Wailed’ more than eleven years ago; all I remembered was that it was about a young family living in the World War II era. I wanted something fairly light to read; in retrospect this wasn’t a good choice from that point of view, as it’s much less light-hearted than most of Streatfeild’s fiction.

However, I was captivated almost from the start. Laura (nine), Andy (seven) and Tim (five) are the Clark children. They live in London in extreme poverty, often eating nothing but a single potato when payday approaches. But their home is filled with love, and they don’t know anything other than their tiny house with furniture in and out of the pawn shop, darned clothes passed down from family to family, and regular dirt and hunger.

Everything changes when they are evacuated into the countryside. They go to Dorset, and - after some confusion and an attempt to split the family - are billetted with a Colonel whom they call ‘Sir’, mostly looked after by his former batman, Elk, and his wife. They are not very impressed, at first, by an upper middle class home, with regular baths and early bedtimes. But they very much appreciate the variety and quantity of food available, the beautiful countryside, and the cleaner air. They miss their parents, but soon settle down.

Disaster strikes in several ways about half-way through the book. It would be a spoiler to say more; but the focus is on the ways that the children deal with disappointments and worries. There are some dramatic moments in their subsequent travels and adventures, and many insights into what life, and London in particular, would have been like during and after air raids.

There are no highly gifted children in this story (other than one with a cameo role later in the book); nor are there the cosy nannies or nurses of most of Streatfeild’s novels, though Mrs Elk somewhat fulfils that role. Laura is far more mature than most children her age, taking her responsibility as the oldest very seriously. I liked the differences between Andy, who has many ideas and likes to take action immediately, and his brother Tim, who is more sensitive.

While the gory side of war is kept to a minimum, the author doesn’t glorify it in any way. Tragedies and serious injuries are part of everyday life. As a piece of social history, I would recommend this very highly. It wasn’t published until 1974, but the author, born in 1895, lived through both World Wars and clearly wrote from personal experience.

Intended, I assume, for children of about eight or nine and upwards, this would probably appeal to anyone interested in the war years, and could make an excellent addition to a school or home educators’ study of World War II. The language is not juvenile or ‘easy read’, despite the characters’ young ages, so it could be of interest to teenagers keen on this topic who don’t mind a fictional storyline. I enjoyed reading it very much, and look forward already to reading it again in another ten years or so.

No longer in print, but usually available second-hand.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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