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The Exiles at Home

Style: Good

Attitude: Positive

In Brief: Slightly wacky but realistic family of girls. Determination not to let down the African schoolboy they've rashly promised money to. Their ingenuity in trying to get money for a good cause. Valuing older people.

Author: Hilary McKay

Series: The Exiles

Publisher: Hodder

Published in: 1993

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: Contemporary

Setting: Lincolnshire

Genres:  FamilyHumorous


Characters:

  • Ruth Conroy is, at 13, the oldest of the Conroy sisters. With 11-year-old Naomi they are the Big Ones, while Rachel and Pheobe are the Little Ones, at 8 and 6 respectively.
  • Big Grandma is their ruthless and well-meaning grandmother who despite her brusqueness somehow understands the girls even better than their parents.

Synopsis:

Ruth, hiding in the school library when she's feeling ill, rashly fills in a form to sponsor an African schoolboy, writing her age in such a way that it looks like she's 18. She uses her Christmas money from Big Grandma but that leaves the girls £10 a month to find for the rest of the year. Their schemes are both funny and heartfelt, and involve an elderly couple for whom Naomi does gardening work without charging. When they finally get desperate, they turn to Big Grandma for help.

Notes:

Like Hilary McKay's other families, the Conroys are funny, loving and completely believable. McKay captures perfectly the age-gap between the children in a family, the resentment between sisters when one or other is shut out from events, and the fierce solidarity and increasingly desperate determination to overcome external obstacles. No-one could possibly claim that Ruth, Naomi, Rachel and Phoebe are plaster saints, and still there's that about them which is a fantastic advertisement for cheerful virtue.

Aside from Ruth's initial generosity in sending her £10 Christmas money to support an African schoolboy, the others — when they find out — give up their respective money with good grace after only a little bargaining. Then they cook up increasingly manic ideas to support the scheme, just managing to find £10 each month. Baby-minding, sandwich-selling, street-artistry, breaking open a piggy bank and robbing the Post Office are just some of the ploys they use.

In particular, Naomi takes on a gardening job for an elderly couple, helped ultimately by her sisters. She's so struck by their air of shabbiness that she stops charging them, and even buys things with her own money. They all get involved and Phoebe in particular with the shamelessness of a 7-year-old argues cheerfully with the elderly Emma who has the shamelessness of a 90-year-old. The youngsters effortlessly bridge the gap between the generations and it is that bridge which finally helps them to solve the problem of their African schoolfriend with whom they exchange letters each month.

Themes:

  • The lives older people led when younger
  • Helping poorer people elsewhere

It was the beginning of a strange understanding between Phoebe and Emma. It was a friendship of equals, both sides seeming oblivious of the eighty-five years that separated them in time. Phoebe made no concession to Emma's obvious frailty. If Emma fell askeep in the middle of a conversation, Phoebe did not hesitate to shake her awake again. She dragged Emma, willy-nilly, through her own convoluted ideas and theories, and when Emma did not understand, Phoebe drew pictures to demonstrate her thoughts, and explained the pictures to Emma. Emma retaliated by ignoring the fact the Phoebe was seven years old, completely poverty stricken, confined to school all day, and hampered by a family who all attempted to bring her up in different directions

Tuesday 1st January 2002