Monday, September 21, 2015

Crooked Heart

As a rule, I avoid stories that involve children in distress.  Since becoming a parent, such stories cause irrational anxiety.  Having heard an interview with Lissa Evans, I guess I knew that such a child was at the center of Crooked Heart (HarperCollins, 2015) - it revolves around a boy evacuated from London during the Blitz - but somehow it came across as a little lighter.  And the story does, ultimately, delight and uplift and sadden.  It is a rare book that can hit that sweet spot.

A child's pain is a necessary part of the story in Crooked Heart.  After the death of his beloved godmother, Noel Bostock is evacuated to the countryside right before the bombing gets bad in London.  You wouldn't necessarily call Noel Our Hero, because he's not conventionally heroic, seeing as how he helps his evacuation host perfect a scheme to scam patriotic Britons into giving money to their various non-existent widows and orphans funds.  Yet he has a sharply defined moral code - that would be the Heart of the title - which pushes the story into more thoughtful territory.

We've all heard of the heroic Britons, who stood up to the Nazi threat with stiff upper lips, a sense of humor, and polite queues.  All that is here, but in addition . . . everyone is on the make, and it is OK!  Pretty much every character here has his or her little private method of bending the rules, getting ahead, making a bit on the side.  Everyone is able to justify their actions, at the same time that they might threaten to reveal those of others.  But where does it end?  There is a spectrum along which such activities fall and to a child, for that is what Noel is despite his preternatural intelligence (not necessarily mature, just wicked smaht), the place of all the various activities going on in this novel are crystal clear.  One action, perpetrated by an air raid warden, outrages Noel and is the cause of the more dramatic events of the last third of the novel.

Noel tries to explain to his teacher, Mr. Waring.

  "'There's been an injustice.  Someone took some things from someone else and the person who took the things ought to get punished and the person who lost the things ought to get them back again, but the only other grown-up who knows what happened won't actually do anything about it.'
  'Why not?'
  'Because she - because this other grown-up is afraid of getting into trouble for doing something else.  Something that isn't nearly as bad as the other thing.'
  'A venial as opposed to a mortal sin?'
  'Yes.  If "venial" means "not nearly as bad".'
  '"Pardonable" would be the definition.  Have the victims of this different sort of badness offered their pardon?'
  Noel paused.  'The victims don't actually know that they're victims,' he said.
  'They don't?'
  'Well now . . .' Mr Waring clasped his hands together and clicked the knuckles like press-studs.  'That would be what we'd call a moral dilemma.  Is a crime any less wicked because its victims are unaware of its perpetration?'
  'Yes,' said Noel, with certainty.  No one who had contributed to Vee and Noel's charity-box had ever been carted off to an asylum, screaming that they'd been robbed.  'So now something really bad - a mortal sin - isn't being rectified.  And it ought to be.  It ought to be.'"  (171-172)

Mr. Waring is more perceptive than Noel thinks.  In fact, he seems like a rather good teacher, shepherding a class of mostly numbskull 10 year-olds with some wit and insight.  Noel stands out from that pack as only the fiercely brilliant ones ever do:  ostracized for the most part, not really to their dismay, happy to wrap themselves in their superior intellect as a barrier against contact with lesser peers.  And yet - he is ten.  So his interactions with adults swing between a childish essentialism and a mature worldview.

  "'You all right, son?' asked a woman ticket collector.  'Had a bit of a fright, have you?'
  'I told that policeman about a crime' - his voice was loud and indignant - 'and he didn't do anything.  He didn't even ask me the name of the criminal.'
  'What sort of crime?'
  'Theft.  From people who've been bombed out.'
  She nodded glumly.  'There's a lot of it going on.'
  'But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be stopped.'
  There was a crash outside that jarred the whole floor.
  'You'd better get downstairs,' said the collector.
  'So you're saying that because it's common it's acceptable?'
  'I'm saying that unless you get underground you're liable to get blown up.'
  'You mean that collective safety's more important than collective morality?'
  'Go downstairs.'
  'Which makes us actually no better than the enemy that we purpose to despise.'
  'Gus!' - she was calling over his shoulder - 'Gus!  I need a hand.  Can you make this blinking little walking dictionary get into shelter?'"  (219-220)

 Noel's situation is ultimately heartbreaking.  You think of your own ten-year-old, and know she might not make it through his trials.  But maybe, maybe, children have that funny resilience that we experienced growns sometimes lack.  The war and circumstances break down his walls in a way, and in tandem with the dim (maybe not dim.  Unlucky?  Unable to take advantage?) but determined Vee, he not only survives but in a weird way, thrives.

The grownups in this story, like the questionable activities, fall along a continuum of good to bad, but all with a flaw or some damage.  One of the most interesting is Noel's godmother Mattie, who dies early - so early in the story that this is not a spoiler.  It is clearly Mattie who honed Noel's formidable intelligence and finely honed sense of right and wrong.  She may or may not have approved of his and Vee's activities, but you know that she would have stood up and applauded his efforts to right the wrong referred to above.  You wish you could spend a little more time with her, a game old gal if ever there was one.

There are lots of characters here, each picking his or her way through the moral minefield of the homefront.  Mattie and Noel and Vee are the most interesting, but you can consider many ways people survived this war in reading the various experiences.  And to be sure, there is a certain amount of predictability to the story:  Vee and Noel come to depend on each other, and to care.  She matures and he softens.

But so what.  Crooked Heart is one of those books that you think about when you are not reading it, and that you continue to think about long after you are done.  For a light story, it offers an unexpected and compelling depth of perception.  It is a wonderful story that you should read as soon as possible.

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