Doreen by Barbara Noble

Endpapers from the Persephone Edition of Doreen

Endpapers from the Persephone Edition of Doreen


I finished this book a few days ago and I thought that it was quite wonderful.

There are so many things I want to say about this book and its subject matter that I’m going to depart from my usual style and ask and answer a series of questions.

That way I hopefully get everything in and keep things coherent.    



This Book is for the War Through The Generations Challenge?

Yes, it is. The challenge blog is here and is well worth a read.

It wasn’t the most obvious challenge for me to do, but I was drawn to the idea. My fiancé reads a lot of military history and I often feel that maybe I am not as well informed as I might be.

I had a look through  my shelves and  I found six books that would fit the challenge. Not books about warfare but books about people who lived through world war two and whose lives were changed by it. A woman who was trapped in Germany during the war while her children were in England, a girl growing up in Nazi Germany, Londoners living through the Blitz and, in this case, an evacuee.

So why a book about an evacuee?

One of my favourite childhood books was about an evacuee – Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden.

There’s a more personal link too.

My grandmother took in refugees. She had a big house with losts of space in a quiet seaside town. Both of her sons were away fighting and my grandfather had just died, leaving just her and my mother at home.

My mother recalls that one family were unable to adjust to life in Cornwall and decided to take their chance in the Blitz, but a number stayed. She continued to exchange Christmas cards with one until he died a few years ago.

Anything else about evacuees?

Yes, lots! Jessica Mann wrote a wonderful introduction to the Persephone edition of Doreen.

The British government set up an Evacuation Sub-Committee in 1931, long before the war. They believed that if war broke out again it was inevitable that London would be heavily bombed. And so a plan was put into place to move the population elsewhere in the event of war, hoping to relieve the authorities of responsibility for the most vulnerable, free up hospitals and the emergency services and minimize panic. And when war was declared that plan was used.

Never before and never again since have large numbers of children been taken en masse from their homes in vulnerable areas to live with strangers in safer areas.

Nobody considered the psychological effects of separation, living in different homes, changes in upbringing …..

Was evacuation a lesser evil than the dangers of total war?

And what about Doreen?

Doreen Rawlings is the daughter of an office cleaner. Her mother initially refused to let Doreen be evaucated but when the Blitz began she began to realise that she should have let Doreen go and borne the parting to give her the best chance of avoiding danger.

Mrs Rawling’s employer Helen Osborne provides a solution. Her childless brother and sister-in-law lived in a quiet country village and would be happy to take Doreen in.

The Osbornes are a kind, loving middle-class couple, who grow to love Doreen and want to do the best for her. Doreen settles happily into her new life

But Helen Osborne sees the danger of taking Doreen “out of her class” by teaching her grammar and ironing out her accent, giving her things that her mother could never provide. And eventually Doreen’s two mothers clash, as they have very different ideas as what is best for her.

Barbara Noble writes beautifully and with great insight about the mind of a child torn between her mother, whom she leaves behind in London, and the couple who take her in.

Doreen is likeable and utterly believable. Indeeed all of the characters are wonderfully drawn and you can empathise with every one, though you know that not all of them can have a happy ending.

There is much detail about life in Britain during the war, both in the Blitz in London and in the quiet countryside. The contrast is striking.

And light is shed on the sharp class distinctions of the time, different ways of raising children and the perils of separation.

A wonderful story and much food for thought – this definitely a book that will stay with me.

Evacuation kept children safe, but at what cost?

8 responses

  1. Before I had read any Persephone Books I had heard of this one and at the time it didn’t sound like something that would appeal to me. Now that I’ve been reading Persephone Books selections I find them totally addicting. I will get around to buying this one–it sounds excellent.

  2. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: March 7, 2009 at Semicolon

  3. Pingback: Two Quotations and two Books to Give Away This Friday: Persephone Books « Fleur Fisher reads

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