Fireweed by Jill Paton Walsh
I picked this up in a bookshop because of its lovely graphic cover – in just three colours – and bought it because of the introduction by Lucy Mangan. I used to follow her column about classic children’s books in The Guardian but I’d never come across Fireweed. I’d heard of Jill Paton Walsh’s fiction for grown-ups but the fact that she was a winner of prestigious children’s book prizes had passed me by. Lucy Mangan loved this book when it was a class read at school – despite this scenario being enough to ruin most set books for her – and that was enough for me.
After the first page I was careful not to read the rest of the introduction until after I’d finished the book. I suspected it might give away more about the ending than I wanted to know, and that was true.
Bill and Julie are teenagers adrift in London during the Blitz. 15-year-old Bill has escaped his isolated evacuee placement in Wales and come back to London, virtually penniless and now – due to a bomb – homeless. His family life is rather bleak, and he seems a little detached from his emotions. Julie’s background is more mysterious – partly because it is Bill who narrates their tale and she keeps as much back from him as he does from her (but not from the reader). For example, neither Bill nor Julie are their real names. But she’s got more ready cash and the two team up, trying to evade both the bombs and anyone official – or just officious – who might question them and end their brief spell of utter freedom. For a few weeks in the autumn of 1940 while London and its inhabitants reel under constant bombardment, they play at surviving in the cracks of a dangerous city.
The author was only three in the year of which she writes, and thanks ‘everyone I know who is old enough to remember 1940’. Fireweed was first published in 1969. My parents were young teens during those war years, and when I was a child ‘The War’ was a frequent topic of conversation amongst all the adults I knew, as a relatively recent and still very vivid set of experiences for them. I’ve read fictionalised accounts of civilians at home or abroad, from authors who lived through it (e.g. Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia Manning, Elizabeth-Jane Howard) to more recent representations of the era by younger writers (Sarah Waters, Jill Dawson). Paton Walsh’s depiction of London in the Blitz is outstanding, perhaps because she was able to draw on very real contemporary memories. Fireweed is full of practical details, sometimes gruesome, without getting bogged down. I’ve never read such an evocative description of the tube stations that served as shelters for crowds of Londoners every night, while still working as a form of transport. Or of newly-bombed streets, and the fragile bits of buildings still standing. The Blitz was smelly! Filthy! The food was pretty rubbish, especially when you couldn’t use your ration card. The organisation of keeping a city going, and mopping up the debris, human and otherwise, is amazing, but still looks, from this distance, amateurish and based on good luck and goodwill and a very British propensity for ‘mucking in’.
And maybe the picture of the Blitz is so vivid because Bill and Julie aren’t quite adults yet, and have that mix of fearlessness and naïveté of those just emerging from childhood. They roam London, looking at everything, not only seeing but feeling and smelling and tasting, too. Yes, they get tired and anxious and frightened, cold and hungry, but they also show nerves of steel, ingenuity, and a weary determination to keep up the fantasy for a little longer.
Lucy Mangan reread the book many times, always getting more from it. She says that Jill Paton Walsh dismissed it later in her career, but it still feels a worthwhile read to me. Two young teens, not always compatible, fending for themselves in a frightening world, but a world full of strange opportunities: sounds a perfect modern YA read.