The Children Who Lived in a Barn
Eleanor Graham
Persephone Press

I wish that I could find out more about Eleanor Graham and her motivation for writing this novel, as it is certainly very intriguing.  It is marketed as a children’s book, but I don’t think that any of the children I know would enjoy it very much as it’s too negative.  The storyline, that five children are forced to care for themselves when their parents go missing, sounds like it has potential for adventure, but in actual fact turns into a story of survival.  Or more accurately a question of endless hard work and drudgery.

As the eldest, thirteen-year-old Susan takes on the role of mother. With her slightly younger brother, Bob, vacillating between capable husband or feckless husband, depending on what mood he’s in.  Between them, they oversee the raising of their three younger siblings, Jumbo, Sam and Alice.

Within days of their parents disappearance they are evicted by their landlord and forced to move into a barn.  They spend the rest of the book fending off attacks from the District Visitor, who wants to split them up and send them to an orphanage, as well as fielding judgmental and mean spirited interference from the Vicar’s wife and other village busybodies.

The Children Who Lived in a Barn was written about a decade later than Joyce Lankester Brisley’s Milly-Molly-Mandy stories and slightly earlier than Enid Blyton’s first Famous Five novel and I can see similarities with both in terms of style and plot.  However, I would say that Graham’s novel is the Anti-Milly-Molly-Mandy; where Milly-Molly-Mandy enjoys the freedoms of rural life, the protective guardianship of neighbours and the warm bosom of family, the Dunnet children are abandoned by parents who are stupid at best, neglectful at worst, and come under almost constant attack from the people who live in their village (the few notable exceptions being Farmer Pearl and his wife, the schoolteacher and a tramp).

Susan copes admirably at what is essentially an early taste of single parenthood.  The rises at four in the morning on Mondays to wash the children’s clothes before school, does odd jobs, lives frugally, keeps house and provides a stable and caring home for her brothers and sisters.  In some ways, this novel echoes the current trials of modern single motherhood; the lack of support, the judgement and criticism being parallel to my own experiences of Social Services, the Family Court system, the Church and the Welfare State.  And for that reason, Susan is now one of my favourite fictional heroines!

That Susan manages so well, is perhaps because she is a product of tougher and more disciplined times, when children were expected to shoulder responsibilities at an earlier age and to help their parents around the house.  I’m trying to imagine my daughter’s reaction if I asked her to get up at dawn to wash the bed sheets.  Or my own, for that matter.  I’ll hand it to Susan, she’s a better housewife than I’ll ever be.

See also: 101 Things for a Boy to Make