This is the best example I’ve found so far of how hard it can be for adults to judge what kids will like or understand: I first read this when I was perhaps eight or nine, and when reading it as a child, I completely missed all the jingoistic National Pride issues. The subliminal (for a child) tone of the book is not surprising; Streatfeild wrote it during World War II, so as an adult I can accept that she would have felt the need to express some (for an adult) quite unsubtle anti-German sentiment. What I can’t explain is the distrust of the gypsies with whom the children travel for part of their journey; I don’t know if this attitude holds true today in the UK, but in the book they’re presented as untrustworthy and conniving at best and at worst thieves.
This is not to say I’m advocating blatantly nationalistic pap. While I think Streatfeild’s other books are still eminently suitable for kids today, though more than slightly dated, in retrospect this one is justifiably one of her lesser known works, at least in the United States. While the book isn’t quite as blatant as some propaganda posters of the time, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, depicting Japanese as squinty eyed bucktoothed midgets, the tone of the children’s reaction to the German soldier is disquieting even as it’s understandable in context.
At any rate, on to the book itself. Ignoring the nationalistic attitude and prejudice, it’s still fun for me to read.
The Stranger in Primrose Lane1 is set in a small town in England which is never named, not surprisingly on a street called Primrose Lane. The Town Council declared the street ‘condemned’ before civilian construction halted at the beginning of World War II–the houses’ minuscule size was not much of an issue, but rather that they were not anywhere near the residential code of the time. For starters, they had ‘sewage issues’ whenever the Thames flooded, not to mention rodents in the sculleries. One of the families had moved out after the street was slated for demolition, but the other three families remained, quite happily, in their homes, and the six children on the street took over the empty fourth house as a sort of clubhouse2.
The main action of the book begins with one of the fathers returning home on a 48 hour leave from military service; the families plan a garden party, complete with tinned lobster and ices, for the second evening he’ll be home. This is, however, rendered difficult when the children notice that there is A Stranger in that fourth house; he speaks English fluently but with a sentence construction pattern that gives him away as German. The children, already on the alert for spies, infiltrators and parachutists, play along with the stranger’s requests: they buy him food, place phone calls to a mysterious “Hilda” to convey coded messages back and forth and so on. When the German escapes the building and heads for his rendezvous, the children follow him, pursued themselves by the mysterious Mr. Elm and Mr. Oak3, over hill and over dale, falling in with gypsies, all the way to the seaside. All ends well, with the German’s capture, though we never do find out just what branch of the government Mr. Elm and Mr. Oak work for.
Coming back to this 35 years later, there are a couple of glaring plot holes I caught as an adult reader which went swoosh over my head as a kid. How did the German get to a small town in England? Why didn’t the kids tell their parents? The children’s rationalization of/for not telling their parents is that one of the children overheard another pair of parents discussing the father’s deployment from a specific launching point, a security breach to say the least, and they don’t want to let on that they not only know this but inadvertently revealed the information to the German. Surely, though, the children could have simply left that out, saying only “Mummy, Daddy: there’s a strange man hiding in Number Four, and we think he’s a German.” The parents are well aware that the kids all play in that fourth house frequently.
If one is able to ignore those holes, it’s a fun adventure story, a step up from the innocently overprotected Enid Blyton books, in which the village sweetshop running out of one’s favorite candy is the worst thing that might be expected. The relationship between the kids is simplistic though reasonably realistic; I appreciate the way the other five kids handle the very pretty only child, Millicent, who’s been spoiled rotten by all the adults she meets to the point of behaving like a saccharinely indulged Shirley Temple wannabe with the neighbor children. The other kids squash any attempt at eyelash batting and endearing lisps quite promptly, to the point that she behaves quite well with them. As a group, the kids squabble but on the whole accept one another for what they are.
This time of Anderson shelters and Wardens is probably something of a mystery to kids today, though probably less so to young readers in the UK than in the US. Streatfeild does not stop to explain any of the terms and events of the book, as she’s writing for kids of the time, who might be presumed to know such things as a matter of course. Even referring to ‘shillings’ or ‘sixpences’, much less ‘a bob’, might be perplexing to kids of the intended age range today in either country, given that the UK decimalized forty years ago–I haven’t a feel for how much the terms remained in common usage.
1published as The Children of Primrose Lane in the UK.
2Given the diminutive size of the cottages, at least by modern American standards, I can well understand the kids’ desire to claim it as their own.
3their real names are never revealed but the two are connected with national security forces