The Children who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham
It’s been a while since I picked up one of the lovely Persephone volumes I have on my shelves, and I’m not sure what attracted me to this one at the moment, although All Virago/All August (which includes Persephones) is one possibility! “The Children who Lived in a Barn” was a Christmas gift from my dear pal J. and as usual it’s a lovely one. The book is of course a classic, and Graham was editor for Puffin Books, Penguin’s children’s arm; this was her only proper work of fiction.
“The Children who Lived in a Barn” tells the story of the Dunnett family: Sue, Robert, twins Sam and Jumbo, plus the ‘baby’ Alice. The family live in a rented ramshackle old house near a village, and at the start of the tale their parents are called away unexpectedly by a family illness, rushing off to take their first plane flight. Amazingly (to modern eyes, anyway) they choose to leave their children at home alone, with Sue (the eldest at 13) and Robert (next down, but a boy) in charge of the younger ones. All does not go as planned, however, as the family are behind with the rent and their nasty landlord decides to evict them. A friendly local farmer offers them a barn to live in; the children move in and try to get by on their own, and also to win over the initially suspicious locals. Will they cope with cooking, cleaning, school work and the lack of money? Will they defeat the local do-gooders who want to farm them out to various carers? And what did happen to their parents.
On surface level, then, the book is very reminiscent of Enid Blyton, who wrote a number of books about children managing on their own (“The Secret Island” springs to mind instantly). However, there are differences: “Barn” comes across as having a much more adult perspective, and unlike many of the Blytons (which often involve children running away), these youngsters are staying put and carrying on with a relatively ordinary life.
So the chores are divvied up; alas, the children fall into traditional roles and Sue ends up with most of the domestics (which *did* rankle a little); but they all have tasks, they all learn to pull together and have adventures along the way. Their relationship with the villagers improves, the do-gooders get their comeuppance and at the end equilibrium returns. There *are* a few strange gaps in the story, particularly dealing with the Dunnett parents – their rushed departure and sudden return does rather stretch credibility a teeny bit in a book that’s striving to be more realistic than the usual childhood fare. And although the central character of Sue is believable and well-drawn, the rest of the family are perhaps less developed – Robert is stolid, Sam and Jumbo naughty and it was probably the whiney and selfish youngest, Alice, who really stood out in her own right alongside Sue.
Nevertheless, these are minor niggles, because I really enjoyed my read of this novel. Like so many Persephones, one of the most rewarding things about this book is the glimpse it gives us into the past. We take our mod cons so much for granted, and the thought of getting up at 4 a.m. on a Monday morning to hand-wash the family clothes and linen is terrifying. It’s staggering what housekeeping involved back in the 1950s and watching the children struggling to deal with endless cooking, cleaning, shopping and account-keeping alongside going to school is quite an eye-opener.
The book as a physical object is, of course, a delight. It comes beautifully reproduced with original drawings and I do wish all reprint publishers would take as much care as Persephone do. “The Children who Lived in a Barn” was a wonderfully enjoyable wallow in a tale from a lost world, and it’s really whetted my appetite for picking up more titles from my pile of Persephones!