A Home in the Country

Written by Sheelagh Mawe
Review by Edward James

This claims to be a true story and doubtless it is, but to classify it as non-fiction would be a disservice to the author’s artistry. It is written mainly in dialogue: vivid, quick-fire colloquial British and American English. The viewpoint is totally subjective, there are very few dates and places (at no point are we told where this happened, except that it was somewhere in America) and the intention is to convey a psychological truth rather than a precise record. If not an historical novel it is certainly novelised history.

This is the story of four dreadful years in the author’s childhood, ‘Mis-Lit’ as it is termed in the book trade. It is linked to a specific historical event. In 1940 a relatively small number of children, mainly from British upper-class families, were evacuated overseas, mostly to America, to escape the wartime bombing. The programme came to an abrupt end with the sinking of the SS Benares, the loss of many children and the epic boat voyage of a group of survivors. The author and her brother reached America before this, to endure years of extreme emotional, physical and sexual abuse on an American farm. The American foster kids on the farm fared no better.

We know that many evacuee children, myself included, were harshly mistreated in Britain, but I had always supposed that the overseas evacuees lived in comfort and safety. But it seems that all over the world there are people ready to abuse vulnerable children, and that teachers and social workers often don’t want to know.