Cuckoo in the Nest
In Brief: A young man trying to do what he wants in life without going against his family. The support the family offers even with its spats and storms. The joy and companionship of working in a theatre.
Series: Hollis Family
Published in: 1995
Age Range: Young Teens+
Period: Mid 20th C
Setting: Winford, Herts
- Ralph Hollis is the 16-year-old son of a manual worker who acquired a better education during his evacuation to a vicarage. Now returned to his home, he yearns for a career in the theatre, despite his working-class father's detestation of the idea.
- John Hollis is Ralph's father, a hard-working labourer, recently demobbed and finding it hard to return to civilian and family life. In spite of his outbursts, he loves his wife and family deeply and works hard to keep them together.
- Mrs Egerton-Smythe is a middle-aged widow in Winford who gives Ralph work as a gardener before becoming interested in the theatre people he moves with.
- Jessica Egerton-Smythe is Mrs E-S's 15-year-old daughter, away at school for much of the time, but who has a friendly relationship with Ralph.
16-year-old Ralph Hollis is yearning for a career in the theatre, while his father is furious that he won't find real work. Their working-class family live with good grace in a cramped and damp house, including Mr & Mrs Hollis, 16-year-old Ralph, 14-year-old Harry, 11-year-old Elsie, Mrs Hollis' sister Win, and their orphaned cousin Joan who works as a shopgirl nearby.
Ralph was evacuated to a vicarage and picked up an education, refined speech and a love for the theatre. The nearest theatre is in the nearby town of Winford and Ralph goes there as often as possible, eventually becoming accepted by the theatre company as an unpaid worker, something which enfuriates his father. To bring some money in, he takes a job as a part-time gardener with Mrs Egerton-Smythe, a middle-aged widow with a 15-year-old daughter with whom he becomes friendly.
We see through Ralph's eyes as he moves between the three parts of his life: braving his father's displeasure and the difficult conditions in his family home; increasing in his friendship with Mrs Egerton-Smythe and, even more, with her daughter Jessica; and mixing with the theatre people he longs to be one of. In their different ways, everyone is as supportive as they can be, even his father giving way in the end when he admits to being impressed at how serious Ralph was about things.
I can't get enough of this book. Writing the synopsis was a trial; usually I can sum a book up in about three sentences without omitting any significant aspects. Here there is so much meat that it's difficult to know what to miss; yet the style is by no means heavy or elaborate.
The Hollis family seems realistic: they are all together in cramped surroundings, yet they keep going as cheerfully as possible without appearing at all unlikely. They have their spats and yet the fact that they are a family — even the extended members such as Joan and Aunt Win — is uppermost. It sounds terribly sentimental, but it isn't.
Ralph & Jessica's relationship is delicate and, at first brotherly-sisterly; it later grows into something a little deeper, but by no means precocious, even though at one stage they do sit in either end of a bed to tell each other stories. Ralph's love for his family, and in particular for his little sister Elsie, is quite touching; watch out for the scenes between the two of them when Ralph arrives home late to find Elsie sharing the bed he and Harry normally share because Joan snores so much.
Just a couple of negative notes: When Ralph's mother becomes pregnant, Aunt Win suggests she “get up and scrub floors and let nature take its course.” and on another occasion, Joan (and indeed Ralph) get the wrong idea about Mr Hollis' loving attentions to his wife, although it's not clear exactly what they did think, and the author doesn't push the point.
As soon as she reached the wings she dissolved into sobs. Felix took hold of her by the shoulders. “You've forgotten to give him the poison,” he said.
“Oh no!” she gasped. She saw Ralph. “You'll have to take it on.”
“I can't,” said Ralph. “I'm dead.”
“The gaoler!” she said desperately. “Couldn't he?”
“No,” said Felix, “He wants to see him guillotined.”
“I can't go on again.”
“Perhaps you could pretend she got the key from me,” said the gaoler.
“Shush,” interrupted Basil.
Everyone listened. “He's making his death speech.”
“You'll never get to me to die by the guillotine,” the lead was shrieking. “Never will a Lunaire be executed in public!”
“What's he doing?” whispered Felix.
“Strangling himself,” she whispered mesmerised. There was a thump
Wednesday 30th July 2003