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Scotland's Blitz - Through the Eyes of a Child
Mavis's Shoe - Sue Reid Sexton
Member Name: rosebud2001
Mavis's Shoe - Sue Reid Sexton
Date: 07/08/11, updated on 07/08/11 (94 review reads)
Advantages: Incredibly powerful and evocative prose
Disadvantages: A couple of weak links to plot devices due to the simplistic and innocent prose used
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.
Summary: Witness the Clydebank Blitz through the eyes of a child