Published: Bunty Picture Library #425
Gemma Halliday comes home from school one day to good news – her father’s company wants him and mum to spend the summer in Hong Kong. But the bad news is that Gemma can’t come as well. The company isn’t paying for her and the parents can’t afford it. Instead, Gemma will be spending the summer with Great Aunt Lyn in the country. Gemma is very disappointed to hear she won’t be going with her parents and is bracing herself for a summer holiday of boredom in the countryside with a great aunt she hardly knows.
Aunt Lyn is very nice, but Gemma still wishes to be with her parents, and her boredom increases when bad weather sets in. Aunt Lyn suggests she go up to the attic for something to read. Gemma is not hopeful that there will be anything decent to read, but is pleasantly surprised to come across an old diary. It starts in September 1939, when a twelve-and-a-half girl called Eve writes that she has just decided to start it.
Eve and her parents live in London. World War II has broken out, and there are tearful goodbyes to Dad as he departs to go into the army. Eve promises her father that she will look after Mum while he is away.
At school the teacher distributes letters for parents about children being evacuated to the countryside in case Germany bombs London. Mum declines the offer because she and Eve want to stay together. But then their home is destroyed in the Blitz. At this, Mum changes her mind and tells Eve that she is joining the next round of evacuees. Eve is horrified, but Mum is adamant. So Eve resolves to be brave and not cry over leaving her and going to an unknown fate.
Lunch interrupts Gemma’s reading. But now she is feeling less upset because her own separation from her parents is nowhere near as bad as Eve’s.
Upon the resumption, Gemma reads that at their destination, the evacuees were all taken in except Eve – Mrs McDonald, who was meant for her, has been taken ill. Evacuee organiser Mrs Barford hastily sets Eve up with Mrs Pettigrew, a reclusive-sounding woman living alone in a big house with a housekeeper.
Right from the start, Mrs Pettigrew’s is not the place Eve wants to be; the house looks “gloomy and scary”. Mrs Pettigrew herself “looks like a witch” and doesn’t behave much better. She has never welcomed lodgers – Mrs Barford virtually blackmails her into taking Eve by threatening to get her house commandeered for army barracks or hospital services if she refuses an evacuee.
But Mrs Pettigrew immediately goes to spiteful lengths to show Eve how unwelcome she is. She gives Eve the attic bedroom (tiny and cold) when the more kindly housekeeper offered her the more plush spare room. When the housekeeper offers Eve porridge for breakfast, Mrs Pettigrew directs her to make Eve’s porridge with water because she wants all the creamy milk. Then she forces Eve to do the washing up although Eve protests that it will make her late for school, and she suspects that was precisely Mrs Pettigrew’s intention.
Soon Mrs Pettigrew is making Eve work like a slave. All the while she allows Eve so little food that Eve cannot sleep for hunger, even though she is worn out because of the work. Added to that, Eve starts hearing strange noises (a door banging for no reason, mysterious footsteps) and Mrs Pettigrew starts winding her up about the house being haunted.
Meanwhile, an enemy plane is shot down and one of the pilots escapes. Now there is a manhunt for him and everyone is on the lookout, but so far the airman is evading capture.
In between reads, Gemma learns not to turn up her nose at food she doesn’t like (better than going to bed hungry like Eve), and introduces Aunt Lyn to bowling. She is delighted to see Aunt Lyn enjoying it and thinks her childhood must have been really boring. But Gemma can’t wait to get back to the diary; it is a riveting read now.
Now food goes missing. Mrs Pettigrew blames Eve and punishes her by allowing her no breakfast for a week, and the work gets harder. More food goes missing, but the kindly housekeeper agrees not to mention it to Mrs Pettigrew; she reckons Mrs Pettigrew is taking it herself. Where possible, the housekeeper shows Eve kindness.
Then Eve finds a man’s footprints on the kitchen floor she just cleaned, and they go straight to the larder. Eve realises there is a man creeping about in the house, which explains the strange noises and missing food. Assuming that Mrs Pettigrew is hiding the missing German airman, Eve goes to the police. But it is not the airman (who gets captured later) but Mrs Pettigrew’s son Peter. She had been hiding Peter in the cellar to keep him away from the fighting, but now he is arrested for “shirking”. Following this, Mrs Barford takes Eve away from Mrs Pettigrew, saying something else has turned up for her anyway.
And in the next village, Eve is surprised to be reunited with Mum! Mum didn’t like being on her own, so she got herself a job as a cook at a big house in the countryside in order to be with Eve again. They are going to stay there until the war ends – and there ends the diary. Gemma wishes she could know if Eve’s Dad ever came home.
But next day Gemma discovers that Eve is Aunt Lyn (Eve and Lyn are short for Evelyn). Aunt Lyn does not mind Gemma reading the diary one bit. Yes, Dad did come home, and there was “quite a to-do” when she exposed Mrs Pettigrew and Peter. Recalling her earlier assumptions about Aunt Lyn having a boring childhood, Gemma realises how wrong you can be about people.
This story is certainly a lesson in expectations and not making assumptions about anyone or anything until you know more about them. Gemma came in with expectations of a boring, miserable summer with no parents, and she came away with a whole new appreciation for the things she has, her aunt, and also family history. And Gemma reciprocated her aunt as well, such as introducing her to bowling for the first time in her life. So grownups can learn from kids as well.
It is also a story about two girls undergoing the pain of separation but being united through the diary. As Gemma reads, her own pain of separation lessens as she learns that there are others who are worse off than herself, including the girl she is reading about. Eve has no idea when – or even if – her father will return from the fighting. Then she loses her home in the Blitz and the forced separation from her mother to an uncertain fate as an evacuee. Things go from bad to worse when Eve endures starvation, drudgery and misery under the spiteful Mrs Pettigrew. Mrs Pettigrew’s motives for abusing Eve are more rounded than most adults who treat their charges badly in similar stories. She was clearly selfish and mean by nature, but she was also a reclusive woman who understandably resented having Eve forced upon her, and she was no doubt worried about her secret being discovered. But of course that is no excuse for her treatment of Eve or helping Peter with “shirking”. After the punishment of the Pettigrews, it’s a happy ending for Eve when her mother moves to the country to be with her. The diary is the stuff of fairy tales.
Eve All Alone is an engaging story and one you could read again and again. World War II is always a theme that can guarantee engrossing stories about emotion, separation, hardship, courage, adventure and warfare, and this one is no exception. It also reminds us that the war didn’t bring out the best in everyone, especially if they were not the best of people to begin with. Eve’s story as an evacuee still resonates even generations later in her family, and the lessons it teaches come across in a heart-warming manner that is not preachy.
Curiously, the son Peter has exactly the same name as a Harry Potter villain – Peter Pettigrew. Yet Eve came out three years before Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. An anticipatory moment or a popular choice of name?