* Prices may differ from that shown
I read a review of Mavis's Shoe by Sue Reid Sexton last year and immediately put it onto my Amazon wish list as it looked as though it would be a book that would have an impact on me. And low and behold on Christmas Day there is was under the tree.
I had not heard of the author before and looking at the book I can see no indication of her having published anything prior to this which was released in 2011. It seems that she has since written a dramatisation of the book which has been performed. I am sure that she will be an author that we will hear plenty more from in the future as this is a truly moving and brilliantly written book.
**Just another war story?**
Set in 1941 Mavis's Shoe recounts two awful nights of bombing, by the Luftwaffe, of Clydebank in Scotland. This really is not just another war story, however. There is no getting away from the fact that it is a pretty harrowing read that undoubtedly led to an increase in my understanding of what it would have been like to have been caught in this ferocious nightmare where all but 7 houses in the town were damaged or destroyed, but there is something very different and special about this book.
Lenny (Leonora) is the main character in this story and everything that is recounted is from her perspective, reading a little like an autobiography even though it is fiction, albeit based on sound research of a very real episode. She is 9 at the time and we first meet her as the air raid sirens are starting up on the 13th March, the first day of the air raids. She has lost her little sister, Mavis, who has run off, after they had a run in with some 'bad boys' while out playing. As the bombs rain down Lenny runs up and down their local streets desperately trying to find Mavis and then her Mum too, who had been at the pictures with a friend. How can she have lost her little sister in the first place? She is only four, and now there is such danger and horrific sites to be witnessed and she feels so worried and guilty. The one thing that she does find on her search is a shoe identical to Mavis's.
Mavis's shoe takes on monumental importance throughout the remainder of the book as the search for her precious sister develops in a number of ways. She can never be parted from it.
I felt as though I was right there with Lenny every step of the way as the days progressed since the siren sounded and Mavis disappeared. Her emotions are portrayed so clearly and seem so real that I could always understand exactly why she took each course of action that she did and why she responded to the other characters in the book as she did. I can also picture her so clearly with her singed almost nonexistent hair, borrowed dress and hat with the daffodil fixed into it.
Lenny was lucky because she was taken in and cared for by Miss Weatherspoon, who she cheekily, calls Miss Weatherbeaten throughout, who used to be a teacher at her school and rescued her in the immediate aftermath of the first night of bombing. Along with Mr Tait, the scary old neighbour with the wooden stick for hitting children, she guides Lenny away from her desperate hunt for her family, and they walk out over the hills while yet more bombs fall over the town, eventually arriving at Carbeth.
Carbeth, prior to the war was a holiday retreat for the Glasgow city livers and consisted of wooden huts, which were commandeered to house the many people trying to escape the Blitz. Into one of these huts the escapees are deposited and so starts the rest of Lenny's story.
I didn't really take to Miss Weatherspoon; her character seemed quite complex and possibly double sided, but Mr Tait is portayed exceptionally well and it is clear to see how Lenny comes to look on him as such an important figure in her little world. He knows what is right and she trusts him implicitly and he is her real friend. There are many more characters that appear once Lenny is living at Carbeth who all play an important part in how she behaves and how she becomes integrated into this artificial community. It is so interesting to see how this new community pull together to re-establish their lives.
However, no matter how much Lenny integrates and how many people are looking out for her, no one can replace her mum and Mavis and she spends hours looking at that shoe and singing old favourite rhymes, remembering them and working out how she can get them back. She feels safe at Carbeth and with its rope swing, hills, woods, shop in a bus and her new school, all she wants is to bring her whole family here to live.
The book is beautifully written. Nothing is over written or over described. It is simple and childlike but I feel that I know exactly what Clydebank and Carbeth were like and I know just enough to piece together the horrors that Lenny has seen. The cover of the book adds to this and is presented perfectly. Despite being a paperback it is a luxurious glossy feeling book. Do try and read this in paper version and not on an E reader as the cover really does add to the whole reading experience. The front is poignant; flames rise behind gutted buildings at the top with the bottom being taken up with a close up picture of a little brown leather shoe lying on its side on a cobbled pavement beside shards of glass and remnants of bricks. Opening up a flap, much like the sleeve of a hardback book alongside a quoted paragraph from the book there is a real photograph of a smouldering demolished street with a wrecked tram at the centre and people obviously searching for their loved ones or property. Inside is a scene that Lenny clearly describes on her search, looking out of a ruined house with just the range set into the thick wall and the copper kettle intact on it and the Singer sewing machine building outside where her Mum and Mr Tait worked. Inside the cover of the back flap is a photograph showing one of the huts at Carbeth. As you can imagine alongside the prose these really help to set the scene and help your imagination understand Lenny's world.
The book is just over 400 pages long with fairly large print and I raced through it quite quickly. Despite the potentially distressing content I found it an easy book to read. I liked being able to follow Lenny's journey on a map provided at the beginning and there are also some factual notes at the beginning and end. I feel privileged to have been given insight into another culture, and particularly that of Carbeth, and a small piece of the history of the UK. I highly recommend reading it and will be suggesting to my teenage daughters that they read it too as I think it presents life in the war in a way that they will easily be able to understand. I think that it should appeal equally to both males and females.
Published by Waverly
RRP - £7.99
My grandfather loved to talk about the war - so much so I honestly think he often hand twinges of nostalgia for those years at times. He was in the Home Guard in Glasgow - having to stay at home due to the work he did for the GPO as a telephone engineer.
He would frequently tell us about Rudolf Hess' plane landing in a field in Eaglesham in May 1941. My grandfather never saw Hess but he was responsible for guarding Hess' plane in the aftermath of his capture and as such he cut a small piece of metal from it to keep as a souvenir for himself. I can still see it in my mind's eye - my grandfather having written "he who HESS-itates is not lost" on it. If you want to see what remains of the plane it's in the Imperial War Museum.
He also told us about the Clydebank Blitz which took place on 13th and 14th March 1941. My grandfather was always reticent to tell us what he saw, describing it as "a terrible thing". As a child you cannot really grasp the terror of bombs raining down indiscriminately and it wasn't until I was grown up and my grandfather had sadly passed on that I realised from reading many books and visiting places affected by the war just how awful it must have been.
Clydebank was targeted over Glasgow itself because of its strategic position as an industrial hub, with John Brown's shipyard an obvious target never mind the munitions produced there. Ironically the only factory completely destroyed in the blitz was the Strathclyde Hosiery Company.
Clydebank sits to the north west of Glasgow - just 8 miles from the city centre and I have to admit it's not a place I am particularly familiar with, having purely passed through it on the train when heading to Dumbarton, Balloch or Helensburgh which are all to the west of the town. When I read wigglylittleworm's review of "Mavis's Shoe" which is set in Clydebank I was intrigued and she very kindly lent me her copy to read.
It's hard to really describe in much detail the main plot of "Mavis's Shoe" by Sue Reid Sexton because it is, in essence, a child's view of the Clydebank Blitz. That child is Leonora "Lenny" Gillespie and the bombing commences just after she has lost her sister Mavis following a childhood spat with bigger boys.
It becomes Lenny's mission to find her mum and her sister and over the course of the book we learn if she succeeds or not.
The shoe referenced in the title may or may not belong to Mavis, but it's the one tangible thing Lenny has throughout the blitz and its aftermath that she can link to her beloved wee sister.
I have to say that while this book isn't quite as wonderful at capturing a view of the world through the eyes of a child as Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" is, it certainly comes close at times. I actually found the childish comparisons of bombs to killer bees to be quite terrifying and Sue Reid Sexton's description of how Lenny witnesses some horrific events and sights in the simplistic language of a child was able to chill me to the bone.
There is something almost matter of fact in the prose she uses to tell Lenny's story, which is perhaps best referenced in the passage which describes the aftermath of the first day of bombing when Lenny wonders why there are people sleeping in the cinema during the chaos of the aftermath. Her slow realisation that these people are sleeping "the sleep of the dead" is captured beautifully but is also heart breaking to read. It's like being witness to an end of the innocence for Lenny.
Similarly Sue Reid Sexton captures the chaos, pain and fear amongst those facing the aftermath of the attacks as people seek food and shelter where none exists and there is no real comfort to be had in the absence of family. Lenny does encounter adults she knows, including her teacher, Miss Weatherspoon, who she charmingly refers to as Miss Weatherbeaten - a misnomer which is entirely apt.
The blitz left 35,000 people homeless and many were told to go to Carbeth, an area in the countryside outside Clydebank which is famous for the huts there which the benevolent landowner allowed working people to build for a weekend retreat. The book describes the curiosity of Lenny as she leaves her urban home for somewhere so completely different but also somewhere that the same faces from town can be seen.
The book retains a lovely sense of Glaswegian dialogue throughout even though the language isn't hard for non Scots to follow at all. Lenny invariably refers to the toilet as the cludgie, but it's quite easy to work out to what she is referring in context if you don't already know.
One of my favourite sections in the book is a description of Lenny travelling on the tram to Glasgow and of a visit to a hospital ward. This seems nondescript enough until you realise that children were viewed as nothing more than germ magnets in those days and were not permitted on wards and there is a wonderful mixture of tragedy and comedy as Lenny tries valiantly to get into the ward and outwit medical staff who are, almost without exception, harridans of the highest order.
My only real criticism of the book is some of the plot is hard to pick up on because of the simplistic nature of the prose used as Lenny relates the story. Her father is mentioned but only in very vague terms so it's hard to be absolutely certain what has happened to him - you can only make assumptions. Similarly a feud between Lenny's mother and Mr Tait, a neighbour who helps her following the blitz is never quite explained in full.
At the end of the day however these are minor criticisms and they do not take away from the story that Sue Reid Sexton tells. Her prose is incredibly descriptive - so much so even a couple of weeks after I finished reading the book I can still picture in my minds' eye the interior of a hut in Carbeth, the rope swing near to a hut which provided a much needed diversion for Lenny and to help her cope with the horrors she had witnessed never mind the vivid description of Lenny walking through fire in her quest to get away from the bombardment from above.
Even if you have no real interest in the Clydebank Blitz this book is worth reading purely because it is beautifully written and contains some truly evocative prose. You will be rooting for Lenny as you read, willing her to have a happy ending. Whether she finds one or not I will leave for you to find out for yourself.
Nine year old Lenny Gillespie is told to look after her younger sister, Mavis, while her mum goes to the cinema with a nice young man. They walk down to the canal and while they are arguing with some older boys Mavis runs away. Lenny initially thinks the air raid sirens are yet another false alarm and looks for Mavis instead of getting into a shelter but this was the first night of the Clydebank Blitz and soon the air was filled with smoke and rubble was falling all around. Lenny is guided towards the cinema by the warden and manages to escape the chaos outside.
The next day she looks for her mum and Mavis, not even sure if they have survived. She bumps into a neighbour, Mr Tait, a mean man who likes to threaten naughty children with his stick and her teacher Miss Weatherspoon who has a young girl called Rosie who has lost her family with her. As the bombs start to fall again they decide to escape over the hills to Carbeth. The community of huts in the hills provides a place of safety for the refugees but Lenny still has to try and find Mum and Mavis. She keeps hold of Mavis's shoe but will Mavis ever wear it again?
Children see things from a different viewpoint from adults and reading a book which is written by a child narrator can be hit and miss. Lenny is a brilliant character; she has seen some horrific sights in the bombing and the confusion and fear she feels is apparent. She also has a lighter side and is a child who enjoys watching the rabbits play and swinging on a rope swing. Lenny is, as Mr Tait said, full of courage and grit. Her home has been destroyed, her family missing and she has been injured in the bombings yet she still continues the search for her mum and sister but is also very vulnerable. The interactions with the other children in the book were also brilliant; the author has captured the teasing and name calling of children very well. The only child character who was not totally believable was little Rosie who seemed extraordinarily advanced for a four year old.
When I was growing up my grandparents' generation talked about their wartime experiences a lot. I used to roll my eyes and ignore all the boring talk, something I now regret now that I am grown up myself and very few of them are now left to tell their story. I realised whilst reading "Mavis's Shoe" that I knew very little about Scotland during the war; living on the East coast near to Rosyth Dockyard and the rail bridge then there are a lot of reminders of the war years such as air raid shelters as garden sheds and the odd unexploded bomb but I had never heard of the Clydebank Blitz. Reading the book has sparked my interest in these topics and I have already begun to read more about Scotland during the war years. The Clydebank Blitz was more devastating than even the London Blitz with only seven homes in the town remaining intact yet it is something which is not widely known about and even in Scottish schools we were never taught anything about it. The wartime era is captured perfectly; it is hard to believe that people lived so differently just a few decades ago. There is a sense of nostalgia for the tenement flats and the sense of community yet the era is not seen through rose tinted glasses with the attitudes to single mums like Mrs Gillespie being very harsh.
The book is written mostly in "proper" English rather than Scots but there is a good smattering of Scots words and sayings thrown in which made me smile. Writing fully in dialect could have made the book very hard to read, I know I use a lot of Scots words in my daily life but find it a very hard language to read. It is written in a style which fellow Scots will appreciate yet will not put off readers from further afield.
"Mavis's Shoe" is one of the best books I have read in a long time; I would compare it to Emma Donoghue's "Room" in terms of being written through the eyes of a child and also having a massive impact on the reader. A book about Scotland during the war which al
so captures what it is like to be a child in a tender and moving way.