It can be hard to be objective about books we used to love. I set out to write this article about the beautiful and brilliant Julie Andrews’ book The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, a children’s book I greatly enjoyed when I was young and have been surprised by the general ignorance of for a long time. I tried to re-read it. It was literally unreadable. Some things, I guess, do not translate well between ages.
This got me thinking about books that I genuinely loved during my transition between childhood and adulthood. Luckily for teenagers, adolescence is the topic of probably half, if not more, of all literature, and our lost and terrified ennui can be found reflected in the pages of millions of books in every language around the world. We can turn to Holden Caulfield or Harry Potter and see triumph and uncertainty mingled in the exact, maddening cocktail we experience in our own hearts during that fragile time, and for many of us, we can learn about ourselves as adults by returning to the books we first bonded with during our own “coming of age.” That’s how I settled on the book How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff to reread for this month, and to close out what has been an undeniably tumultuous and exhausting year for us all.
How I Live Now is a book (and now a major motion picture) about Daisy, a 15 year old anorexic New Yorker, “fleeing” a disagreeable stepmother to live with her maternal aunt in England after establishing herself as a bit of a hassle at home. Arriving in England, she’s picked up by her 14 year old cousin Edmond, who (illegally) drives her home from the airport and gives her a basic rundown of her new situation. Her Aunt Penn is rarely home, and deeply involved in something vaguely political, leaving most supervision of Edmond, his twin Isaac, and their younger sister Piper, up to the eldest brother Osbert. The entire family is a little odd, each with a characteristic almost supernatural trait that sets them apart from the rest of the family, but ties them together in a strange coven. Isaac rarely talks, and is deeply bonded with animals; Piper is more serious and soulful than is common in flighty little girls and is strangely “fae”; Edmond smokes cigarettes and “reads minds”; and Osbert is odd in his normalcy and maturity amongst his mystical family members.
While destabilizing a teenager and sending her off to live with self-educated farm children she’s never met in a country she’s never been to may seem like enough trauma for the basis of a story, this novel is actually set within pre-to-early war time. The nations, factions, and ideologies involved are left intentionally vague, but the familiar technologies and terminologies made this book very fascinating for me to read when it came out in 2004, having as I did the recent memory of how 9/11 affected my town and country. The fears were very familiar, in a way different from most YA novels I’d read up to that time, because the fears were practical and external, rather than, as most of mine were and are, personal and irrational. In the time since I first read this book I have bought nearly 5 copies; I’d give them to friends at the drop of a hat because of how much I loved it. It’s not a happy story, it doesn’t have a happy ending, and it doesn’t have very many happy parts, but nothing made me happier than putting a copy into a friend’s hands and saying “please keep this and read it.” (I now feel this way about Annihilation and am giving it to several people for the holidays.)
As many of my favorite books do, this story revolves for a short time around a farm. Piper, the youngest girl, has a pet goat and several chickens, and the story is riddled with the realities of countryside life, both pre- and post-occupation. The house is drafty, the barn is stocked with hay, the nearest shops are a long day-trip away, and things like weather and flora and fauna have a heavy impact on the day to day life of the farm’s occupants. When Aunt Penn is called away, and the true wartime mood overtakes the country, preserved food and crops become crucial resources to the children, living alone awaiting consequences. The idea of directly contributing to my own survival, and genuinely expending the energy used to create the goods I consume has always appealed to me, and Daisy, Edmond, Isaac, and Piper are not immune to the “camping-like” appeal of the first stages of the occupation. Osbert, similarly, feels a thrill in the rise of war, and is deeply interested in joining the war effort, to the point of abandoning his siblings when he’s needed. During the peaceful pre-war bubble, however, the magical farmland works its spell over the self-starved Daisy in a way that both encourages her to eat a small amount, and to bond with her cousins, who are relentless about involving her in their world. This is also where the story goes somewhere weird.
The most crucial point of this beginning part of the story is the establishment of the relationship between Edmond and Daisy. The relationship-relationship. Even though, and maybe especially because, they are cousins, Edmond and Daisy gravitate to one another slowly, and then escalate their relationship very quickly, sneaking away from the incredibly tight-knit and housebound group to roll in the hay together, and staying up late communicating quietly and deeply in their own strangely withdrawn ways. They make a small, ineffective effort to hide their canoodling from their family, but honestly, the taboo of incest is so miniscule in this story you can use it to prep for watching Game of Thrones. Regardless of the issue of incest, the bond that forms between Edmond and Daisy is almost telepathic in its intensity, and is important because only through love like that can they have the faith they need to get through the rest of this story.
As previously mentioned, Osbert’s loyalties to his country and to “playing soldier” are stronger than the bonds of blood, for him, and because of his actions, their home is soon occupied by and later turned over to the military, and the family is broken apart and scattered – Edmond and Isaac sent one way, Daisy and Piper another. Daisy and Piper bring along one of the farm’s dogs, but have to leave behind Piper’s goat, Ding, whose storyline hurts me more than I want to talk about. In fact, all throughout this book, the magical and emotional stories of animals help to create and unite families and maintain the strength of individuals. My timing in reading this story with regard to my own life was less than ideal in this aspect, though, having just recently lost my childhood dog, Harley, who was absolutely a magical mind reader and my #1 companion for the last 15 wonderful years. The trials of Jet and Ding throughout the war of course eclipses the drama of my elderly bijon passing away, but the true bridge from childhood to adulthood that lies in losing a childhood pet was illuminated for me more brightly than ever in this reread. The emptiness of that pet being “gone” is stark and the pain not shied away from, and had I known when I read this story the first time how well-depicted the moments after losing a beloved pet were, I’d have spent every moment from then on with my dog.
Piper and Daisy are shuffled from a wartime “foster home” to a farm where they’re used as laborers in picking fruit. Their circumstances go from depressing-but-secure to terrifying and dire in a way that’s so gradual that by the time we, the readers, are frightened for Piper and Daisy, the situation seems inescapable. However, they do manage to escape and try to make their way home, all throughout feeling unidentified mental bonds with Edmond and Isaac tugging them and warning them, and keeping their hopes higher than the rising tide of the war. The girls trek home using an inaccurate map and try to stay hidden and fed, while also trying to track down the rest of their ragtag family.
Daisy’s slow conversion from a broken girl who refused to nourish herself to a young woman with the ability to protect and nourish herself and Piper through the literal wilds of the countryside, scavenging for food and shelter, water and protection is borne not out of her age or what’s expected of her by society, but out of true desperation. A constant scramble to stay together and alive, and inspired to hope by whatever imagined signs they encounter. Rereading this now, from the perspective of someone a decade older than Daisy, I can say safely that this is what growing up is actually like. There is no plan, or path, just being shuffled from one situation to another until you CHOOSE to find the next situation on your own, and stumble wildly through the weeds to get to it. And the next one. And you clutch your loved ones close and try not to lose them in the journey. And none of this sounds pleasant, and neither is the book. But it is reality, and it’s not just the reality of war but the true, bold-faced reality of life. The world will create circumstances, and you will survive them with whatever strength you have, and those circumstances and strengths will change the way that you live, and sometimes, surviving one horrible thing will cure another, or make another worse, or lead you to where you need to be, or to somewhere you need to leave, but dealing with those things and relying on loved ones to help you through them IS how you become an adult.
I said this book doesn’t have a happy ending, and it doesn’t. The ending is bleak and undefined. Piper and Daisy get back to their farm, and Isaac and Edmond do too. But none of them “survived” as the children who played on their unsupervised farm at the beginning of the story; all they have left of those children is their home and their bonds with one another. It’s many years before they’re all together again, and they are all changed permanently by the things they endured during the occupation. And that’s it. That’s the story.
I can’t say I really understood that when I read it the first time, or was as profoundly affected by it as I was this time around, but the open-endedness with which this book closes is incredibly poignant from the perspective of a coming-of-age tale. The struggle isn’t over, not by half. The growing isn’t done, the changes will keep coming, and the reader won’t see them, and that’s life. You keep doing. Without getting too political, this year has felt like wave after wave of failure and regression, and I’ve struggled at times to see a path to hope. But what this book helps me to remember is that hope isn’t the idea that one day in the future things will be the way they used to be, it’s the belief that over time, things will improve. Having hope enables the truth of it–letting hope drive you through the darkness brings the light. Hope is struggling, and continuing to, and that’s how we live. Moving forward into 2018 is daunting, and it can feel at times like the world isn’t giving us a lot of reasons to hope. But the world isn’t the source of our reasons to hope, the world is just the source of our circumstances. Hope comes from our bonds, and our love, and our fight–and of those things, I feel we’ll have plenty.