Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Homefront: Lizzie and the Lost Baby by Cheryl Blackford

Every window on the rain had been painted black, blocking any possible view of the passing scenery. Lizzie knew the paint was necessary to hide the train's lights from the German planes, but she wished she could see outside.

"This is our stop, children" said Mrs. Scruton. Lizzie picked up their suitcase and poked Peter when he almost left his gas mask on the seat.

The train, their last connection to home, pulled out of the station and disappeared into the misty distance.

It is the early days of World War II in England. Their father has already gone to the army, and her mother has to work in a defense plant, and because of the sure danger from German bombings, ten-year-old Lizzie and seven-year-old Peter are evacuated from the industrial city of Hull. Along with the children in their school, they are transplanted, in the term of the time, "for the duration" to the tiny village of Swainedale in Yorkshire. Lizzie and Peter are assigned to a middle-aged couple, Fred, a kindly-seeming policeman, and his gruff wife Madge, but after they trudge a rainy mile into the countryside, Madge delivers them to the house next to theirs with their deeply depressed daughter Elsie.

"You're to stay next door with our Elsie. She's not well. Mind you, don't upset her," Madge ordered."

Life in Swainedale looks to be grim, and although Lizzie tries to set a good example for Peter, spending time in the bomb shelter in their back garden with Mum looks better than life in Swainedale. A sign in the shop window in the village doesn't help.


How long was a long war? Would it be weeks or months? Would the war last until Christmas? Lizzie couldn't imagine being away from home for that long.

Elsie's house is cold, dark, and silent, and Lizzie and Peter share not only a tiny room, but the only bed. Breakfast is watery porridge, and the shepherd's pie has no meat like Mummy's.

Then the two of them find a baby squalling lustily under a tree in a nearby field. Lizzie takes her home, and Elsie seems suddenly to come to life. She calls the baby "Alice" and seems to return to herself, caring for the baby tenderly. But the next day Lizzie meets up with Elijah, a gypsy boy searching desperately for his baby sister Rose, whom he had been ordered to leave behind while he helped a bully check his rabbit snares.

Lizzie knows that it is wrong to steal a baby and lie about it, but Madge and Fred fear the gypsies camped nearby and insist that the baby is better off with Elsie, whose own baby had died. But Lizzie knows what separation means to a family, and she bravely determines that she must be the one to return baby Rose to her real mother.

Cheryl Blackford's just published Lizzie and the Lost Baby (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) features a resilient heroine trying to deal with being removed from everything she knows, as over three million English evacuee children did in that era. Blackford uses the setting skillfully to set forth her theme of honesty and empathy, developing the fellow-feeling between Lizzie and Elijah, both trying to keep their family together in an unusual time in history, and she references Lizzie's favorite book, The Secret Garden, as Lizzie sees the parallel between its heroine Mary, removed from her home and set down among strangers, and her own situation. Beneath the outward sternness of their foster family, Lizzie's courage uncovers kindness and human understanding, and the reader knows that Lizzie and Peter are going be all right "for the duration."

For middle readers, Blackford makes the situation of child evacuees, refugees in their own land, come real, even appending a glossary of Yorkshire words for the reader.

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