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Just Henry

Style: Average

Attitude: Some Care Needed → Positive

In Brief: Positive story about post-war attitudes and opportunities. A slightly tolerant attitude towards divorce and illegitimacy. Generosity and cheerfulness in difficult circumstances.

Cover of Just Henry

Author: Michelle Magorian

Publisher: Egmont

Published in: 2008

Age Range: Young Teens+

Period: Mid 20th C

Genres:  FamilyGrowing-UpMoral Issue


Characters:

  • Henry, influenced by his spiteful Grandmother, believes that his father died an heroic death saving another soldier’s life and that he ought to live up to his father’s ideals which include despising his new stepfather and disguising his own intelligence. His Gran’s influence over him gradually fades and he learns to open his eyes to the truth about his father and about his mother’s new husband, and also to appreciate the qualities of others whom he’d previously despised or scorned. He stands up boldly for his new friends and for others.
  • Mr Jeffries is assumed by many to have deserted during the war, leaving his wife and his son, Roger, the targets of abuse. Pip Morgan and his mother live alone as Pip’s father was killed days before his parents’ wedding. Both Pip Morgan & Roger Jeffries are regarded by their headmaster as beyond the pale on account of the social stigma associated with deserters and illegitimacy.
  • Grace is the severely dyslexic daughter of a rich couple who ship her from school to school and from aunt to aunt as they consider her unteachable. She has a naturally rich singing voice but one which is better suited to the new styles of Jazz music than to the drawing room.
  • Bill, Henry’s stepfather, is a train-driver who plans to better himself. He manages to pass the School Certificate and is accepted for teacher-training. In spite of the obstacles facing him he works to provide a good home for his wife, daughter and stepson.
  • Mrs Beaumont is a middle-aged widow with grown-up sons. She cheerfully opens her house to those in need and is determined to find the “diamond in the dungheap” no matter how bleak the outlook seems. She encourages Henry’s photography hobby, gives houseroom to Jeffries’ and Pip’s families when they are evicted from their lodgings, and finds a way for the severely dyslexic Grace to be educated and for her musical talent to bear fruit.
  • Mr Finch is a teacher in Henry’s new Secondary Modern school. He forces the children to look beyond their prejudices and to grasp the opportunities which arise.

Synopsis:

Henry, believing himself loyal to his dead father, initially despises certain other people and their ideals, but later learns that his father is less of a hero than he had thought and that the others deserve better from him. Mr Finch, his new schoolteacher, places him together with the two class outcasts: Jeffries, son of a deserter; and Pip, an illegitimate son with a somewhat fey manner. They also encounter Grace, a severely dyslexic girl with an unusual singing voice, better suited to smoky nightclubs than to the school assembly hall.

Henry believes that his father died a war hero and, subtly indoctrinated by his Gran, echoes his attitudes. But then his father turns up alive and Henry’s eyes are opened to many things, including his Grandmother’s selfishness and bigotry. It takes a while for everything to become clear to him but as it does, his friendship with Pip & Jeffries deepens and he is instrumental in helping their families when they are evicted from their respective lodgings after his Gran makes trouble with their landladies.

Helped by Mrs Beaumont and her sons, Henry develops an eye for photography and a fascination for the relatively new medium of film. When his father offers him a filming job in London he goes along with the idea at first, but becomes suspicious and eventually refuses. At the same time, Henry’s mother and stepfather tell Henry’s father that they want him and his mother, Henry’s Gran, out of their lives.

In a dramatic final act, Henry’s father takes revenge on the family, destroying their house and kidnapping Henry and his little sister Molly. Henry manages to get Molly away but is himself only saved when the police turn up. Henry’s mother learns that she was never legally married to his father and is therefore not a bigamist as she had feared. And Henry is offered a job on a filmset in London.

Notes:

It’s been a while since Michelle Magorian’s previous book and it feels as if she has ideas busting out all over, so many that she can hardly fit them in one story. I sometimes tag stories as “issue stories”, meaning that the purpose of the fictional narrative is to explore or expose some particular issue: teenage pregnancy, attitudes towards divorce or sexual behaviour, the plight of orphans in war-torn Africa, and so on. Well, within its post-war setting, this book is an multi-issue book and a half. Between its covers we encounter attitudes towards divorce and remarriage, illegitimate children, wartime deserters, class- and gender-oriented employment differences, dyslexia, jazz music, domestic abuse, bigamy, and black-market racketeering.

There’s a lot of good stuff here. Like most of the author’s books, the story is set soon after the war and this time focuses on the emerging cinema industry, on the newly-created Secondary Modern schooling system, and on late 1940s attitudes to divorce, wartime desertion, illegitimacy and the traditional class- and gender-based attitude to employment. As you might imagine, the general approach is to portray too rigid an outlook on these matters as lacking in tolerance while a more flexible attitude is to be applauded. Mr Finch, a strict but sympathetic new teacher at Henry’s school, forces Henry to work with the class outcasts and to examine his own prejudices. He then connives with Henry to ensure that the Headmaster’s reservations over Pip’s illegitimacy do not prevent the boy’s musical talent from shining. Henry himself ends up in the headmaster’s office for standing up for the girls in the class against a slightly mysognistic teacher. And Henry’s soldier friend Charlie plans to marry Lily, a young divorcee.

The only point with which I really take issue is a confusion between the need for tolerance and goodwill towards the fact of remarriage or illegitimacy and the acceptance of those things. It's a moral quibble, not a dramatic one. And the book is hardly strident in putting its point across. Pip is only just illegitimate after years of his parents' courting. We don't know about Lily's divorce, but Henry's mother clearly has a good case for divorcing her abusive husband; and she and Bill stop sleeping together when Henry's father turns up. The way in which Pip and his mother are treated is completely wrong. That Henry's father was abusive and that Bill is the better man are indisputable. I have nothing but sympathy for the characters' situations and nothing but disapproval for the way in which they were treated. But there's no counterbalance, however small, which points out that, maybe, Pip's parents might have waited nonetheless; or that, no matter how complicated the matter, Henry's mother is still married to his father while he's alive. Ultimately the story wriggles out of the latter issue by revealing late on that her first marriage was invalid. Which makes Henry illegitimate but leaves his mother and Bill legally married without any complications.

There are many, perhaps too many, facets to almost all of the characters. It’s almost as if you’re reading three different books rolled into one. As well as Henry’s schoolfriends and his changing attitude towards them, we have Grace whose rich parents have shunted her from school to school and from aunt to aunt, each unable to comprehend her severe dyslexia. And there’s Mrs Beaumont, mentioned above, one of whose sons is a friend of Ralph and Jessica from Cuckoo in the Nest, now engaged. Mr Finch the schoolteacher is keen to foster a wider view of the world among his pupils. He encourages Henry’s photographic hobby while pushing him forcefully into seeing past the common attitudes towards Jeffries and Pip.

On the surface there’s a lot of clutter. But as you start to tease things apart, two strands emerge: the idea of people bettering themselves in this post-war society; and a call for tolerance and understanding of past mistakes or errors. As you might expect, both strands come together in the person of Henry, who wants to find a place for himself in the world of still and cinema photography, but who has to come to terms with his family’s past, and to deal with its present difficulties.

Mrs Beaumont, cheerful, down-to-earth, and forthright is unconventional, but not wildly so. Middle-aged but youthful, she dresses comfortably in slacks and writes Boys’ School stories under a pseudonym. (And, later, girls’ school stories based on Grace’s wide experience). She cheerfully opens her house to the families of Jeffries & Pip when Henry’s Gran stirs up trouble with their landladies. She arranges for her grown-up son and his friends to help Henry and the others to research the history of cinema. And she gives typing work to Henry’s mother to help make ends meet.

Henry’s stepfather Bill whom his mother married when his father was reported dead in action is rather like a younger, more educated, version of Mr Hollis from Cuckoo. A train-driver, he studies for and passes his School Cert and then applies for a teacher-training scheme. Influenced by his malicious Grandmother, Henry despises him and believes that Bill is holding his mother back. Only later does he realise how much his stepfather has done for the family and a late scene between then on the beach is a testament to Bill’s character in spite of everything that has happened to his new family.

The final act, as Henry’s father takes is revenge is unexpected and pulls no punches. The reader is reminded that the author is interested in facing up to real crises. Goodnight, Mr Tom, her first book, dealt straightforwardly with child-beating, the unpleasant death of a baby sister, bedwetting, and the death of a friend. The last section of this story is no less down-to-earth, and I particularly appreciate Henry’s having to look after the messy details of a not-quite-toilet-trained toddler who’s kidnapped along with him. (I appreciate it because it’s something real older brothers do in fact have to do, and why should a fictional older brother be sold short?)

The book has so much meat in it that I haven’t even touched on the children’s reaction to different cinema films, nor on Henry as a photographer, capturing people in unexpected moments, nor on Grace’s bohemian Great-Aunt, nor on many other threads within the story. I skimmed quickly through the recent ITV dramatisation and it doesn’t surprise me that they’ve rolled several characters into one and dropped entire aspects of the storyline altogether. For all that, I can’t help liking the story.

I give the book a thumbs-up overall. The style is straightforward and readable. There’s an overall sense of generosity and understanding rewarded. I regret that the author portrays intolerance of divorce as one more social prejudice. In any case I suspect that modern youngsters will find it difficult to understand just what all the fuss was about over Pip’s illegitimacy and Mr Jeffries’ apparent desertion. The one is so commonplace nowadays as to not even need a name; the other is far removed from the common experience for most people. (Not to mention the fact that the general trend in war-based youth fiction is to sympathise strongly with conscripted soldiers who don’t want to be there). I have one personal and slightly selfish regret: that we don’t get to meet Ralph in person again.

Themes:

  • Are society prejudices always unfounded?
  • Has our approach towards cinema-going changed?
  • Do we need to stay at school until 18?

Thursday 22nd December 2011