The Casson Family Series
Attitude: Some Care Needed → Positive
In Brief: Affectionate understanding in a realistic, if occasionally off-beat, family setting. In spite of the sometimes unconventional activities of the Cassons, the family setting is very robust with mostly unspoken affection at its core. Humorous and fresh with believable characters and situations. Eve & Bill are effectively separated. Tom's parents are divorced (and his father has had a daughter by his new girlfriend). Saffy's parents are an unmarried woman and a married man. Bill has a girlfriend in his London flat, and one of Caddy's many boyfriends looks for a while as though he's going to become Eve's partner, but in the end doesn't.
Series: Casson Family
Age Range: Pre Teens+
- Bill & Eve are the parents of the Casson family. Both artists, they're quite different. Bill is a fashionable and somewhat snobbish artist who, from since Rose was born, has effectively lived apart from his family in a London flat, lately with a girlfriend. Eve, who describes herself as a "tatty hippy", is scatterbrained but warm-hearted. She earns money by selling flattering portraits of pets and family members and by socially-oriented work such as teaching Young Offenders or decorating the hospital.
- Cadmium is the oldest Casson, a girl named after a colour like all of Bill & Eve's children. A sixth-former in the earlier stories, a university student later, she is pretty and intelligent but is unable to commit to marrying one of the several boyfriends she brings home to try out on her family. (Although she comes close).
- Saffron was adopted by the Cassons when her mother, Eve's twin sister Linda, died when Saffy was four. She only learns who her father is in a later book. She's good-looking and very intelligent. She's between 14 and 16-years old during the series.
- Indigo, two years younger than Saffy, is the only boy among the four Casson siblings. He's smart but introspective at school, which leads to his being bullied. He strikes up a quiet friendship with the extrovert American Tom, and from that finds his own level.
- Rose is the youngest Casson, four years younger than Indigo. Naturally artistic, but not inclined to reading, she's a normal, if gifted, 8-year-old girl, and resents not being allowed to do everything her older brother and sisters can do. At one point, as a game, she takes things from shops, leaving them nearby on walls for people to find.
- Sarah is Saffy's special friend. Largely wheelchair-bound after a childhood illness, she is bright and determined to let nothing get in her way. Her family is well-to-do, and her mother is the headmistress of the private school she attends. Sarah, wanting to be with Saffy at her school, cheerfully breaks a school rule a day until her mother is forced to let her have her way.
- Tom is Indigo's friend, an American boy sent to stay with his English grandmother when he refuses to accept his father's new partner and their baby. Brought round by his contact with the Cassons' unthinking affection for one another, he returns to America and keeps up his friendship with Tom, and with Rose.
- David, fat of build and straightforward in outlook, was an unenthusiastic member of the gang which used to bully Indigo. When Tom returns to The States, David decides to befriend Indigo. Saffy and Sarah are scornful of him, but he persists in his friendship and helps several of the family in his own way.
- Michael is Caddy's on-off boyfriend whom she can't quite marry, but neither can she quite let go of him. He's friendly and kind to all the Cassons and keeps up his hope of Caddy one day coming back to him.
The Casson family cope with everyday life, their friends, and each other. Each of them has challenges to face, which they do helped, or sometimes hindered, by the other members of their family and their friends. Each of the books focuses on life from the point of view of one of the family members, with the exception of Caddy Ever After which has each of them in turn telling their story via a diary narrative.
There are four books in the series so far. Saffy's Angel (SA) introduces the family and explains that Saffy was adopted when her mother died. It goes on to describe her friendship with Sarah, a mainstay of the series, whose wild idea it is to smuggle Saffy on her family's holiday trip to Siena so that she could visit the place she was born and retrieve the Stone Angel which her Grandfather left her in his will.
Indigo's Star (IS) is set a couple of years later and takes place as Indigo returns to school after a serious illness. Only Rose understands that he's afraid of being bullied, and Indigo forms an alliance of convenience with American Tom, another target for the school gang, which turns into a real friendship.
Permanent Rose (PR) introduces David who's determined to befriend Indigo now that Tom's away. Undaunted by the Casson girls' scorn of his perspiring rotundity he perseveres in his simple way, and is instrumental in helping Rose to overcome a habit of shoplifting. In this book, also, Saffy becomes determined to discover who her real father is and the answer to this is bound up with Rose's unexpected opportunity to visit New York and see Tom, another great moment for David who manages to make it happen.
The penultimate book, before the as-yet unpublished Rose Forever is Caddy Ever After (CAE) in which the Cassons describe through diary-like narratives various small interrelated challenges each must overcome. Rose tells of overcoming the fears introduced by her friend Kiran's scary stories. Indigo arranges things so Sarah will go with him to the school disco. Saffron's narrative explains her shame at running away in fear when her friend Sarah is badly ill. And Caddy tries for marriage with Alex, even though Rose is holding out for the disappointed Michael.
With the slight caveat that broken families are normal, if never really condoned, I heartily recommend this series. Why? Because the characters are fresh, funny and realistic. And because their relationships are likewise believable and grounded in reality if often very slightly larger than life. Since the setting is patently English — not Hollywood English, just English — I don't know how well the books travel. But I think they will, if only because the characters and the situations in which they find themselves are perennial.
Whereas the Conroy girls in the author's Exiles series moved between Lincolnshire and Cumbria, all we know of the Cassons is that they live a train ride away from London where Bill lives, and close enough to sheep-farming countryside that Saffy's boyfriend can leave her and Rose stranded on a hillside when his car breaks down. Why does this matter? Because the majority of youth stories are city-based (possibly because the majority of youth authors are city-based). And city children and city families are somewhat sharper and less tolerant than their more rural counterparts. The Cassons are hardly yokels (although see Gideon the Cutpurse for a sizeable and pleasant family living in the countryside) but neither are they entirely urban. Their edges seem softened in direct contrast, for example, to their father's more metropolitan outlook.
Which brings us to the Casson family parents. Bill married Eve some 20 years before but some time after Rose's birth took himself off to London to his fashionable studio and has effectively remained there ever since, coming “home” for increasingly irregular weekend stays. It takes the family a while to accept that this is what has happened, and it's true to say that Bill still loves his children and his wife. But definitely at a distance. There's a nice scene in SA where Bill visualises his family with a rosy glow, picturing Indigo as a keen footballer and Saffy with a smile and without a nose stud. He even goes so far as to bring a football and a doll as presents for Indigo and Rose respectively, only to face the reality of his family's messy lives from which he escapes as soon as he can. He's generous — he gladly pays for Caddy's wedding in CAE — but always at one remove. He has the charisma of a filmstar, and the taxi driver who takes him to the station thinks he's a great family man, but Bill heaves a sigh of relief once he's back on the train to London. Eve, on the other hand, while she also hides from her family in the garden shed where she does most of her painting, is most definitely at home with the children. She is the kind of artist whom Bill patronises: she has displays of her work in the window of the local Building Society (and they sell out) and teaches Young Offenders to print T-Shirts. Scatty and increasingly reliant on her children's ability to make up for her inadequacies, she's a lovable figure who never lets money matters worry her; she simply dives back into the shed and produces a glowing portrait of a family pet to make ends meet. Greathearted, she understands intuitively why Rose is unhappy for Tom and would love to help more than she can.
Against this backdrop, the Casson children are funny, intelligent, fiercely caring and full of initiative. Their friends fit in perfectly, too, once they've overcome their initial surprise at how the family functions. In IS, Tom discovers that being a member of the (extended) Casson family means joining in the search of the kitchen cupboards in the hope of finding food, taking care of Rose, helping with homework, learning to fold Sarah's wheelchair and believing that Bill will come home in the event of an emergency. Sarah's family, far better off, are generous without being intrusive. In CAE we learn that the Cassons go round there for Sunday lunch from time to time, and they host the reception for Caddy's wedding. It's hard to put your finger on just what makes the youngsters in these stories so normal and yet so endearing, but just a few snippets come to mind. Saffy and Rose, lost on a cold hillside at dusk, are trying to pull Rose out of some marshy ground. In spite of her own precarious situation, Rose manages to feel sorry for Saffy who's dirtied her only decent pair of trainers. And Saffy feels ashamed of her own short temper when she sees that Rose is thinking less of herself and more of her older sister. Elsewhere, Saffy is sensitive to Sarah's own feelings of inadequacies and forgoes a plan which would exclude her less able friend. And there are many more. Tom, early in his acquaintance with the Cassons, is tricked into taking over Sarah's washing-up duties and doesn't even notice that the others are passing the dishes back round again in a spirit of good-natured mischievousness.
The friendships between Saffy & Sarah and between Tom & Indigo are beneficial in both directions. The girls happily ignore each other's disadvantages (Saffy's poverty and Sarah's immobility) and help each other with homework and have joint crushes on good-looking English teachers. Sarah is the only child of a well-to-do couple and could easily have been spoilt. Saffy suffers initially from a feeling of exclusion as she was adopted and her name doesn't appear on the family colour chart. But their friendship is palpable, and is made clearer when Saffy unwittingly runs from a bad asthma attack of Sarah's and can hardly face her afterwards. The boys, in their own way, learn from each other. Indigo picks up a spirit of independence, and a liking for the guitar, while Tom learns what it is to have a family which loves you (and realises that he does in fact have one himself: sounds cheesy but isn't). Caddy & Michael is a more tenuous thing and Rose doesn't really have a special friend, unless perhaps Kiran who appears in CAE and who comes from a big family which nevertheless would worry where she was.
One other note which stands out in all Hilary McKay's books is a very deft touch when describing schools, pupils and teachers. It's far too common in youth lit to find cartoon-level teachers and pupils, especially teachers. Too often they're present merely as a backdrop or to introduce a sordid plotline. Here, though, the headmaster of the Secondary School is an understanding, if exasperated, adult. And Rose's primary school teacher is adept at channelling the twitchiness of her pupils into a carefully-controlled session of Hot Gossip. The pupils are picked-out even better: Rose's Ghost Club in CAE is characteristic, down to Rose's shame at being so scared as to wet herself (and Eve & Saffy's reactions). Look out for Kiran's tall stories, and the younger children's willingness to immerse themselves in her imagined world. The bullies at Tom's school are not demons; they're real lads drawn into a gang by a kind of unspoken crowd psychology, which can just as easily draw them out again. Witness the scene on the bridge towards the end of IS as Rose, in tears at having damaged a guitar, is desperate enough to fight her way through a whole gang of boys whose main reaction is to stop her ending up in the road.
Once or twice there's a faintly spiritual vibe, such as when Saffy talking again to Sarah after the latter's recovery, ponders on whether humanity is all there is to things. Sarah's gentle response: Drink your choc, it's getting skin on top.
Wednesday 15th August 2007