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The Yellow Duster Sisters by Susan Kennaway

The Yellow Duster Sisters

by Susan Kennaway

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Kennaway tells the story of her evacuation and return in a breezy tone, as if she's talking to you over a glass of tea. She is good at showing how she felt as a child while also looking back at things from an adult's perspective. I will warn you though: the early part of her book, pre-evacuation, describes a happy childhood in her upper-middle-class English family, but the remaining two-thirds are basically nothing but misery. There was nothing like she would have suffered had she spent the war in England, but the cold, unloving, unfeeling adults in her life made things very unpleasant for her and her sister, and their parents were no better.

Susan and her sister Gyll, aged nine and eleven, were evacuated to South Africa to stay with an elderly aunt and her aunt's employers, a family (parents and grandparents) with a daughter Susan's age. Their carers basically didn't want them there and made no secret of it, particularly as months passed and the war continued on and it became obvious that the girls would have to stay a very long time. (They anticipated staying six months. It turned out to be four years.) It wasn't that anyone was outright abusive (mostly) but Susan and Gyll got no love or affection from their hosts, who could barely tolerate them. Gyll was sexually abused by one of the men in the family, and when she finally got the courage to tell, she was blamed for "seducing" him. (She was about thirteen at the time. He was a middle-aged man.) Their parents stopped writing them and all they really had was each other, and their friendship with the daughter in the family.

I wanted to basically grab every single one of the adults in the story, particularly her parents, and give them a good shake. I mean, what the beep? As I said, the parents stopped writing. And when Susan and Gyll returned to the UK, both their father and mother made it clear that they didn't want them around. In addition to that, for three years their parents lied to them and kept an important secret for no good reason other than that they didn't feel like telling them.

The book is not as depressing as I make it sound in this review. Although the author, Susan, doesn't sugarcoat the emotional deprivation she suffered, her perspective and the details she has about her relationship with her sister keep the story going. I recommend. ( )
  meggyweg | Nov 2, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 140881210X, Hardcover)

1939. As war breaks out across Europe, nine-year-old Susie and her older sister Gyll are despatched to Africa by their mother. Alone on the dusty continent, the sisters find little sympathy in their new guardians, and little to like about their new way of life: patched-up clothes, a 6 o'clock bedtime (a particular indignity) and regular obsessive cleanliness rituals. Their continued presence a nuisance, and overwhelmed by fear of doing the wrong thing, Susie and Gyll seek an ally in Mavis, the only other child of the house, but it's a relationship that becomes tinged with jealousy.

Feeling increasingly abandoned as the years pass and letters from home become ever more infrequent, the sisters begin to dream desperately of escape; if only they could go home, everything would return back to the ways things used to be. But when they do finally arrive home and get off the boat, no-one is there to greet them off the boat. Gradually they learn that their mother has joined the Polish army and that their father has taken on a mistress, who has moved into the family home. Life only gets stranger when they are sent off to the baffling Cheltenham Ladies College, where English boarding school life only adds to their feelings of alienation.

Recounting a youth filled with both hope and despair, Susan Kennaway writes with a charm and honesty of the challenges of growing up during evacuation. The Yellow Duster Sisters is a wonderfully evocative and moving exploration of the shifting nature of war-time family relationships.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:57 -0400)

Evocative, funny and charming, Susan Kennaway writes about the difficult challenges of growing up during the Second World War with rare honesty and insight. 'The Yellow Duster Sisters' is a moving exploration of the often ignored, and often destructive, nature of shifting war-time family relationships.… (more)

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