Our Family by Victor Pemberton

My girlfriend Michele’s mother passed away yesterday morning. This post is being written in her memory.

May Alley was born in Liverpool, England in the 1930s. As a young girl she lived through the horrors of World War II, as the Nazis inflicted their terrifying Blitz upon Great Britain. Following the War the UK experienced a severe economic depression, and May came to the United States in the 1960s to look for work.  Living in New York City she married and eventually gave birth to Michele.

Michele and I have been a couple for almost eight years now. I was fortunate enough to meet May on a number of occasions during this time. She was a very sweet woman.

I was often reminded of May when I read the historical novels of London-born author Victor Pemberton.  I initially knew of Pemberton from his work as a writer and script editor on Doctor Who in the late 1960s.  In fact, Pemberton has had a very diverse career in television, radio, and documentary films.

In 1978 Pemberton wrote the ninety minute radio drama The Trains Don’t Stop Here Anymore, which starred Nerys Hughes and was broadcast by BBC Radio.  It was inspired by the lives of Pemberton’s parents.  The play was followed up in 1987 by two additional installments, Don’t Talk To Me About Kids and Down by the Sea.  In 1990 Pemberton was asked to adapt this trilogy into a novel. That book, Our Family, became the first of 15 historical novels, which Pemberton refers to as his “London saga.”

Our Family by Victor Pemberton

Our Family opens in London during the First World War.  Letty Edgington meets Ollie Hobbs, a soldier recuperating from wounds sustained on the French battlefield.  Letty and Oliver fall in love and, despite their very different socioeconomic backgrounds and the objections of their families, marry.  The novel follows their lives over the succeeding decades, through both good times and bad.

Pemberton invests his characters with real humanity.  They are very much living, feeling individuals.  No one among them is all good or all bad; Pemberton succeeds in finding redemptive qualities in even those people who at first glance would seem completely unlikable.  He delves deep into the minds and souls of Letty, Ollie, their families and friends, revealing what motivates their actions, giving us a real understanding of who they are.

For me, one of the most striking aspects of Our Family was the chapters set during World War II.  I am Jewish, and so when I was growing up I learned about the Holocaust.  Additionally, in college I minored in History.  From my classes on European history, as well as outside reading, I gained some knowledge of the events of the War.

But, truthfully, I never truly understood the terrible experiences on the Home Front in Britain until I read Our Family.  Pemberton’s depiction of the Hobbs family’s struggles to survive through five long years of almost-daily air raids by the Nazi Luftwaffe and subsequent rocket attacks on London, seeing their beloved city turned to rubble, watching innocent civilians die in the terrible bombings, is incredibly powerful.  Pemberton communicates all of this in a way that the matter-of-fact text and still photographs of a history book can never achieve.  I was left with a profound admiration for the British civilians who endured half a decade of the horrors of war.

I also came away from Our Family with a realization of what Michele’s mother went through as a young child as Liverpool was bombed, and an understanding of how decades later May could still be traumatized by those events.

Pemberton chronicles the story of Letty, Ollie, and their children through to the late Twentieth Century. When I reached the end of the novel, it was a sort of bittersweet experience. Throughout the course of the book, I had gotten to know the characters so well, and I was reluctant to part with them.  I almost felt like I knew these people personally.

In 2011, after reading Our Family, I e-mailed Pemberton with some of my thoughts concerning the novel, particularly the chapters set during the War. He was kind enough to respond to my missive:

“As I’m sure you have gathered, I myself lived through the horrors of the London blitz, and it is a period in my life that I shall never forget. In many ways, writing those fifteen saga novels, most of them set during that war, has been an attempt by me to exorcise those terrible times from my mind, but the memories still linger, especially the dark moments of sudden death in one’s own family, and the appalling destruction wreaked on the civilian population.

“Yes, Our Family is basically the story of my own family through the ages, Letty and Oliver were my own parents, and Mick is me. Ninety-eight percent of the story is true, and I look back at it with a mixture of affection, bewilderment, amusement, and sadness, the same, I imagine, as with so many other families.”

Pemberton’s novel is a stirring narrative that left me deeply moved. I highly recommend it.

Our Street by Victor Pemberton

The second book in Pemberton’s London saga, entitled Our Street, is also a very heartfelt work. The novel chronicles the friendship between Elsa, an elderly German Jewish refugee, and Frankie, a teenage boy (a fictionalized version of Pemberton himself), in 1940s London.

Although it is not quite as easy to find a copy of Our Street here in the States, it is worth tracking down, as well.  A number of web sites have used copies for sale.

By accident I purchased two different copies of Our Street through used online booksellers. I gave one of them to May, who was a voracious reader. Michele subsequently informed me that her mother had enjoyed the novel, and that it reminded her of her own childhood. I hope that I was able to bring her some small measure of happiness with that gift.

It has been a few years since I read both Our Family and Our Street. I hope to have the opportunity to read them again in the near future. Pemberton’s rich writing is well worth experiencing a second time.

Advertisements

Comic book reviews: The Late Child and Other Animals

Sometimes when you read a book your initial reaction is uncertainty, and you ask yourself “How do I feel about this?”  Such was the case with The Late Child and Other Animals published by Fantagraphics.  I finished it almost three weeks ago, and it took me this long to think it over and finally feel that I could sit down and write about it.

The Late Child and Other Animals is written & colored by Marguerite Van Cook and drawn by James Romberger.  It is an autobiographical work.  The first two segments look at the life of Van Cook’s mother Hetty Martin in England during & after World War II, with the remainder of the book offering a view of Van Cook’s childhood & teenage years.

The Late Child and Other Animals cover

Hetty was a woman who had a difficult life, who had to find the strength to overcome numerous obstacles.  During World War II her husband, like millions of other young men from Great Britain, was drafted into the armed forces.  While her husband served abroad, back at home Hetty, her parents and her siblings were among the numerous civilians forced to endure the nightmare of the Blitz.  Van Cook & Romberger powerfully bring across how the horrors of the war existed alongside the mundane, how the British people strove to endure and go about their daily routines, never knowing when death might fall from above.

The end of the conflict brought little peace to Hetty herself.  Tragically her husband was killed while still stationed abroad, not in battle, but in an accident, when his truck drove off a bridge.  Now widowed, Hetty struggled to retain custody of a young child who she has recently adopted.

A few years later Hetty gave birth to a daughter, Marguerite.  The child was conceived out of wedlock, the result of an affair with a married man.  Hetty was forced to appear before a board of inquiry to plead her case, to convince the government that she should be allowed to keep her daughter.  Van Cook & Romberger render this sequence as a surreal nightmare, the middle-aged puritanical men of the Court morphing into a flock of ravenous crows.  The writing, art and coloring all work to evoke the psychological & emotional duress that Hetty endured throughout the hearing, a thinly-veiled inquisition.

The Late Child and Other Animals pg 46

From the perspective of 2015, it must be difficult to conceive of what Van Cook’s mother had to go through in order to convince the government not to take her child away.  In certain respects the pendulum has swung in completely the opposite direction.  Now it often is nearly impossible to remove a child from the most abominable examples of parents.

Having said that, the underlying forces and attitudes behind the ordeal Hetty faced definitely remain.  The moralizing, misogynistic judgments that she endured in that official hearing still exist in society, manifesting themselves in numerous other arenas.

The narrative The Late Child and Other Animals then shifts its focus to Marguerite, who grows up in & around Hetty’s hometown of Portsmouth.  Various facets of post-war British society are viewed through her young eyes.  Van Cook’s narration & dialogue is very expressive.  The art by Romberger, in conjunction with Van Cook’s coloring, evokes a variety of moods & atmospheres.  They very successfully bring to life this past era.

The Late Child and Other Animals pg 80

The jump to the final segment of The Late Child and Other Animals is unfortunately jarring.  Marguerite is now a teenager in France in the late 1960s.  She is living with her friend Catherine’s family in Paris, and she accompanies them to the northern coast of France for a lengthy summer holiday.  It is never explained how Marguerite came to be in France, how she knows Catherine, or what happened to Hetty.

While on holiday, Marguerite is given a pet rabbit to care for.  At the end of the summer, though, after having bonded with the rabbit, it is taken from her by Catherine’s mother Yvonne, who has it slaughtered right before Marguerite’s eyes.  I was left pondering the motivations of this seeming act of petty cruelty.  It was one of the aspects of the book that I’ve been continually thinking over since I finished it.

Marguerite had previously depicted Yvonne as a somewhat formal, rigid individual lacking in emotional warmth.  Was the French woman merely being hurtful by having the rabbit killed?  Or was she, in her brusque manner, attempting to teach the English teenager a lesson, to show her that life is not fair, that it will often be very harsh, as well as to demonstrate the transient nature of existence?  After this incident, the young Marguerite is contemplative…

“It seems that things must change. The adult world is barbarous. I began to reconstruct my romantic exclusive view of the world, though now I was a little less pure than when the season began.”

The incident prompts Marguerite to begin experiencing some of the disenchantment that many of us go through in our teenage years as we become more aware of the unpleasant realities of the world, the ones that challenge our youthful optimism & idealism.

The Late Child and Other Animals pg 168

Another aspect of this occurred to me.  Shortly before the rabbit was slaughtered, Marguerite had joined Catherine, her parents and her extended family in an enormous end-of summer feast, a culinary extravaganza containing numerous exquisite dishes and recipes.  All of this, when you think of it, came some somewhere; the ingredients did not just materialize out of thin air.

As the summer draws to a close, Marguerite has returned to Paris with Catherine and her family.  One autumn evening, Yvonne serves a stew that Marguerite finds “delectable.”  Asking what it is, she is informed that it is rabbit.  She then asks if it is HER rabbit, and the answer is yes.  Marguerite accepts this.  As Van Cook writes of her younger self, “And so it was I ate my pet and remembered all the fun times of the summer.”

Yes, this could be regarded as a rather blasé attitude.  But I recalled something that filmmaker John Waters wrote in his 1981 book Shock Value.  Reacting to viewers’ outrage that he actually killed a chicken during the filming of Pink Flamingos, Waters queried…

“Don’t most of the people who are horrified at this scene eat chicken? How do they think it gets to their plates? The chickens don’t have heart attacks, for Godsake!”

As with other elements of the narrative, I think that Marguerite’s actions and reactions here are somewhat open to interpretation, offering the reader food for thought (no pun intended).  There is a great deal of depth to the material that Van Cook & Romberger present in The Late Child and Other Animals.  This is one of those works that undoubtedly benefits from re-readings.  I look forward to finding out what impressions it leaves me with when I examine it again in the future.

Richard III: Monarch or Monster?

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The recent discovery and identification of the skeleton of the English King Richard III (1452 – 1485) has certainly ignited a firestorm of interest in the deceased ruler.  Prior to this event, I expect that the majority of people who were aware of Richard III knew of him by the villainous reputation so ably propagated by William Shakespeare in the play penned in 1592, more than a hundred years after the monarch’s death in battle at Bosworth Field.

One of the more interesting aspects of this peak in interest in Richard III is the re-examination by certain historians of his character & policies.  The question has been raised as to whether or not he was truly as malevolent as the figure depicted both in Shakespeare’s play and the writings of 16th Century historians.

Now, there is certainly nothing wrong with a reappraisal of the past, as long as it is done with a certain amount of caution.  It does no good to completely throw out the long accepted views of historic events on nothing more than a whim.  Revisionism is understandably an ugly word, because too often it is utilized in service of presenting an extremely biased, skewed interpretation of events.  But, if approached properly, a revisionist examination can offer up alternate perspectives that challenge our thinking in a healthy manner.

Richard III

Richard III

I am no historian (although I did minor in History in college) so I am certainly not the one to be presenting any sort of overview of Richard III’s life.  Many, many books have been written on the subject, and a number of summaries of his history are also available online.  Suffice it to say, his two year reign was an unsettled one.  There was a certain amount of controversy surrounding Richard’s ascent to the throne of England.  The disappearances of his two young nephews, whom certain people saw as the legitimate heirs to the throne, led to much speculation that he ordered their murders.

However, there are a number of positive accomplishments during Richard’s brief time on the throne.  Among these, he put into practice the issuing of bail, meaning individuals charged with a crime would not have to be imprisoned for years at a time waiting for their trials.  He began what was later to be known as the Court of Requests, wherein the poor who could not afford lawyers could bring their grievances.  Richard also reduced taxes, something that I think many a politician wishes they could claim.

Yes, I expect Richard was involved in activities that should be regarded as immoral, if not criminal.  But consider this: he was a monarch in an era when abuse of power was common, and morality was much less well defined.  A look at Richard’s immediate successors to the English throne demonstrates that he was hardly unique:

Henry VII, who unseated Richard, retroactively declared himself to be King the day before the Battle of Bosworth Field.  This allowed him to declare that any who fought on Richard’s side were guilty of treason, enabling him to seize their lands & properties.  His son Henry VIII is notorious for having two of his six wives beheaded. His 1534 Act of Supremacy made it a treasonable offense to question the King’s authority over the Church of England, and various people were executed for defying it, among them Sir Thomas More.  Henry’s eldest daughter Mary attempted to return England to Catholicism, and was vigorous in the persecution of Protestants, which gave rise to her nickname “Bloody Mary.”

In other words, this was a brutal era in history, and Richard’s actions should at least be partially judged against that backdrop, and against the actions of those who followed him.

It is also worth noting that Shakespeare, when he penned his play, certainly had an eye on remaining favorable with the court of Queen Elizabeth.  Shakespeare knew that, as she was the granddaughter of Henry VII, Elizabeth would want to see the Tudor dynasty presented in the most positive light possible.  Which meant basing his Machiavellian characterization of Richard on the popular line of thought (some would say propaganda) advanced by historians writing during the rule of Henry VII onward.

In the end, I imagine that Richard III was not some sort of black-hearted fiend.  I expect that, like so many of us, he was a complicated figure, one whose actions resulted in both good and bad, positive and negative developments for the country he ruled.