Style: Average → Good
Attitude: Unobjectionable → Positive
In Brief: Amusing family story. Friendship between four girls who are growing up. Problems faced cheerfully by a family whose newborn sister might not live. Realistic sibling relationships.
Series: Casson Family
Published in: 2011
Age Range: Pre Teens
- Cadmium, at 12, is the oldest of the Casson children. Next comes her adopted sister Saffron, who's 8, followed by Indigo who's 6, and Permanent Rose, born as the story begins. Bill, their stylish father, works as an artist out of a London studio while Eve, their scatty mother, looks after the family and does some painting to bring in money.
- Alison, smart and rebellious, Ruby, clever but timid and Beth, always nice but outgrowing her age, have been Caddy's best friends since they were put together by a Primary School teacher on their first day. Closely knit, they try to help each other out, even sharing a boyfriend, but find that circumstances are pulling them apart.
Caddy grows up quickly as her family focuses on her dangerously ill baby sister while her friends start to pull apart while trying to keep together. Eve goes into hospital unexpectedly and Bill comes home to look after the children while Rose, their new sister, struggles to stay alive. At the same time, Caddy's friends are starting to take different directions. Ruby has been offered a scholarship to a private school, but is terrified of losing the support of the quartet of friends. Beth is concerned that the pony her parents bought is costing too much and that she is eating too much food by being too tall. Alison's estate agent parents have been planning to move to Australia for a while but can't sell their house. And Caddy, Saffy & Indy do what the Casson family do best: tumble cheerfully, chaotically, and with a quite understated love from one minor crisis to the next.
With Rose Forever (review coming just as soon as I can lay my hands on a copy again) the Casson Family achieved a satisfying finish. Now, I'm of the opinion that an author should stop while the going is still good. My experience of later additions to a nicely rounded-off series has rarely been positive. So when I saw Caddy's World on the shelf in Marylebone Library, I was delighted at the thought of a new Hilary McKay, but I did wonder whether this might just be one book too many.
Well, I'm happy to report that my fears were unfounded. I still think that the author should be cautious about adding lots more books to the series, but I'm glad to say that this one is a gem, capturing the circumstances of Rose's birth while adding the unseen angle of Caddy's circle of friends and the delights of the younger Indy & Saffy. Bill is already living away from the family in his London studio but comes back to help when needed, as for example when Eve has to go into hospital in a hurry for Rose's birth.
That's a nice scene where their mother has to make sure the Casson children, the oldest only twelve, are looked after while getting herself safely to hospital and without giving them any cause for alarm. Caddy's disappointment is palpable when she simply thinks her mother is sending her up to bed with the younger ones, and we learn that Eve normally gives Caddy an hour for herself once Saffy & Indy have gone upstairs, mother and eldest daughter together. At the same time, Saffy's impatient for Caddy to come up and tell her stories of her friends at school, while Indy likes Saffy to come and curl up with him to tell him never-ending fairy stories. There's a real sense of the foundations of the family's understated affection which comes across in the later books.
Caddy worries about her mother and the new baby while Saffy and Indy, eight and six respectively, are insouciant and more than a little happy to have their father's attention for once and to pass on the news they're not supposed to have overheard about how fragile their little sister is. At the same time, Caddy's friends are going through their own mini-crises.
Beth is concerned about what her pony is costing her parents, especially now that she's growing rapidly, and she secretly undertakes a “Norman” diet. (Norman because of the tiny doorway in the ancient local church which the children are told reflects how much smaller the Normans were). She's doing this so as not to cause her parents any worry. Meanwhile, her parents are trying not to cause Beth any worry by reassuring her that there's no problem with money, all the while taking on extra work to make ends meet. It takes Caddy's brave intervention finally to make her friend see that no amount of dieting will make her fit a horse she's already outgrown.
Ruby is a shy but clever girl who has won a scholarship to a private school which she privately would love but which would take her away from her circle of friends and from their protection. It's not until Caddy literally pushes her into the arms of the school's headmistress that she's able to accept what she really should be doing. I particularly like the fact the she's lived with all her grandparents since her parents were killed in an accident long before. I immediately thought of Charlie Bucket, and indeed Ruby's grandparents are just as kind as Charlie's family, but they're also clever and are keen for Ruby to do well. Ruby's so determined to work poorly enough to forgo the scholarship that she also starts on a diet: a diet of books, which she seals by throwing away her library card.
Alison, Caddy's next-door neighbour, is the rebel of the group, pushing her school uniform as far as it can go and a little bit further. Her parents are the local estate agents but have never managed to sell their own house, partly perhaps because of the chaos evident in the Casson household next door. There's a great scene right towards the end of the story where Alison pre-emptively confronts the headmaster about her provocative hairstyle, only to have him see right through her rebellious front and into the bored but passionate young lady beneath. I wish more teachers were shown this way.
The final act starts when Caddy's part-boyfriend sends someone else to tell Caddy it's over leaving Caddy miserable. What happens next owes more to plot mechanics than to realism: Caddy saves Beth, deep in a book, from falling under a lorry right in front of the private school she's been avoiding. At this point Caddy pushes her friend into the arms of the school's headmistress and goes to Beth's stable, where the girls have a refuge, and forces Beth to see that she would be doing herself, her family and her pony a favour by giving him to the Riding School. Beth is furious with her and Caddy goes home to worry again about baby Rose. She's so concerned about the baby and the whispers she overhears and the half-answers from the younger ones that she walks the four miles to the hospital in the early morning to see for herself whether her sister has died.
Since this book is a prequel I trust I'm giving nothing away when I reveal that she hasn't. But the point is that this is the day when Caddy's bravery really shines through. In deference to her spider-wrangling abilities, her friends have affectionately bestowed on her the title “Bravest of the Brave”. But it's a title which is really earnt this day in three quite different ways: as a public heroine, Caddy saves Ruby from going under a lorry; more privately, but just as bravely, she forces Beth to confront the reality of her size vis-à-vis her pony; and she finally musters her own courage to visit the hospital where she fears her baby sister has died.
If you read any of the other Casson Family stories, you get a feel for the warmth of the family: chaotic, funny, and affectionate. That's definitely present here, albeit with the younger versions of the children. But here Caddy's openhearted affection extends also to her circle of friends. They try to help each other, but each has secrets they find it hard to share. It's not necessarily Caddy who sorts them all out, but she is at least a catalyst for change, even though it means breaking up a quartet which has been together since they first met at school. I'm glad, too, that the grown-ups in the background are at least supportive and real characters, not 2-dimensional charlatans nor buffoons for the youngsters' wit to play off.
So it's happily ever before for the Casson family and for Caddy's friends. My choice of favourite scene, though, probably reflects the fact that I, too, am the brother of several sisters, and that the youngest of them was likewise very frail at birth. (And, says the family legend, I dropped her). Once baby Rose comes home, Indigo waits until his mother is asleep and then takes her out of her basket and around the house and the garden, showing her everything. He only drops her once or twice, and when he puts her back in her cradle, she goes to sleep immediately. “'You don't tell, and I won't either,' said Indigo, and Rose's eyes gleamed with the merriment of suppressed secrets... It was the start of a great friendship.”
- Telling the truth when friends need to hear it
- New brothers & sisters who might not survive beyond a few days
Sunday 1st January 2012