Reviews for Just Henry
A way with tears makes Magorian a worthy Costa winner
Michelle Magorian’s books are emotionally wrenching – but they’re not tear-jerkers
Michelle Magorian scooped the 2008 Costa Children’s Book Award with Just Henry, a huge 700-page book that made me cry. Not many authors can do that but Magorian handles dangerously emotional stuff and pulls it off without slipping into mawkish sentimentality. Hence tears.
The same quality marked out Goodnight Mister Tom, her first novel, which won the 1980 Guardian children’s book prize and has been read by every child in year 6 and many others both younger and older – rightly so – ever since. Goodnight Mister Tom is avowedly weepy. Only the hardest heart could remain unmoved. I once met a child who’d sticky-taped three pages together because they made her cry too much – I’m sure everyone who’s read the book will know which three.
In Goodnight Mister Tom, Magorian had the external drama of the second world war as an emotional backdrop: put simply, there was a lot to weep over. In Just Henry, however, the setting is 1949 and there should be – and is – a feeling of optimism and hope. It is a period that’s rarely used in fiction but Just Henry reveals it to be one that’s worth exploring. The effect of the war is still being felt in the social changes it brought about. Life didn’t just “slip back”: few families were lucky enough to remain unaffected. Fathers were lost or altered; mothers found themselves raising families alone, or having to return abruptly to a subordinate role; children were forced to make adjustments either way.
In her big, bold novel, knitted together with more mysteries and coincidences than are credible, Magorian wonderfully captures that uncertainty and shows children’s ability to move forward and embrace change far faster than their parents or grandparents. Lest this realism and the solving of the mysteries is too mundane, Michelle adds an extra layer of emotion by weaving in the stories of film stars from the movies of the day. For once, the current fashion of long, long, long books is justified. Just Henry is a wallowing great read. Just don’t forget your hanky.Posted online Wednesday 7 January 2008
“MICHELLE MAGORIAN’S best-known book, Goodnight Mister Tom, is one of the few nonfantasy novels for children to have stood out in the past 20 years. Set during the Second World War, it established her as an author concerned with the ways that adults and children can help to solve each other’s problems. It has taken her a decade to publish Just Henry, a 703-page doorstopper set in postwar Britain.
Henry is the son of a dead war hero who lives with his mother, his stepfather, their little daughter Molly and his father’s mother. Like Will in Goodnight Mister Tom he is friendless and odd, but instead of a mad, cruel religious maniac for a mother he has a bigoted, manipulative and venomous grandmother, who bullies his mother and has Henry hypnotised into believing her stories about his father. Gran teaches him to despise one boy in his class for being illegitimate and another for having a deserter as a father – and what is worse, her prejudices are echoed by many adults in the small seaside town.
Henry thinks he hates reading because his father did, deliberately failing his 11 plus, and resents both his half-sister and his gentle, bookish stepfather. The only bright thing in his life is the cinema, and it is because of his passion for the movies that his enlightened new teacher Mr Finch puts him in a team with the very two boys he despises as illegitimate and cowardly. Their task to research the history of cinema gets them talking to older people, one of them the mildly eccentric, bohemian Mrs Beaumont, who is the good fairy to counter the wicked witch of Henry’s Gran.
Little by little, the three boys become friends. Henry’s mother, encouraged by Mrs Beaumont, befriends their mothers, gaining confidence in parallel with her son’s blossoming personality and friendship with Grace, a dyslexic girl who is continually being punished. Each child discovers an unsuspected talent. Yet it is the camera that Mrs Beaumont lends Henry which leads to the biggest discovery of all – one that will threaten the lives of Henry and his sister, and which could send his mother to prison.”
Every picture tells a story
Adèle Geras on Michelle Magorian’s Just Henry, a novel that’s as glorious as a Saturday morning show
by Michelle Magorian
Michelle Magorian is the queen of the Home Front. The second world war and immediate postwar period is her territory, and in this novel she also includes another great love: the films made during those years. To someone like me, who remembers the glorious days of oft-changing programmes and Saturday morning pictures, the novel is a treat. If only there were a DVD of some of the movies attached to the book! As it is, readers must rely on Magorian’s descriptions, and she makes a good job of it.
The “pictures” were important for a nation still struggling with rationing and austerity. The cinemas were luxurious compared with most homes, and what went on in them is covered in enormous detail. In the company of Henry and his friends, we see such masterpieces as John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and there’s a splendid scene where our protagonists leave the cinema singing “New York, New York” from On the Town at the tops of their voices. The main adjective to describe Magorian’s work is “generous”. She doesn’t stint in any department, being as lavish with her emotions and characters as any 40s film-maker.
Henry is growing up in a household that includes his mother, his beloved half-sister Molly, his malevolent paternal grandmother and his mother’s new husband, Uncle Bill. His dead father was a war hero. Henry’s horrible granny has made sure that everyone knows how inadequate and totally beyond the pale her former daughter-in-law’s new husband is. Henry has a good teacher at school, Mr Finch, who puts him together with Pip (who is illegitimate and therefore shunned by the whole class) and Jeffries (whose dad was a deserter and is therefore also not to be played with or spoken to) to work on a project. Henry wants to be part of it because it’s about his passion: photography and the cinema. But how to deal with the two pariahs he’s been given to work with? Magorian is skilled at delineating the class distinctions and prejudices of the time, which will seem strange to present-day children.
To this basic mix, the author adds oodles of photography, lots and lots of visits to the pictures, a bit of spying, crime, kidnapping, a talented girl who doesn’t read and a fairy godmother called Mrs Beaumont, who manages to guide the events of the story (which are fast-moving, emotional and exciting) to a happy ending that wouldn’t be out of place at the Troxy cinema. There are surprises aplenty, and you may well shed a tear before it’s all over. The evil granny is worthy of the best melodrama. She’s the spin-doctor supreme for Henry’s dead dad, so we are alerted to the fact that all is not what it seems to be.
Part of the pleasure for the reader lies in the well-loved themes of overcoming difficulties, of making do (for instance, in a wonderful description of making a doll’s cot and bedding out of an orange box) and of knowing that all the young people’s dreams are going to come true and that love will triumph.
The book is long at 703 pages, but there is much white space on the page and the story rattles along. Of course it could have been cut, but as Mae West (who is not mentioned as one of Henry’s heroines, but of whom he’d definitely approve) once said: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”
Henry, aged 14, lives with his mother, stepfather, half-sister and grandmother in a British coastal town in 1949. Nobody has many luxuries because it is only four years since the end of the Second World War. Food is still rationed and everyone has to work very hard. The detail about everyday life in the late 1940s has been very well-researched for this book.
So what happened to Henry’s own father? Henry believes he died a hero’s death in the war. Henry’s grandmother constantly tells her grandson what a wonderful man his father was, but she is very unpleasant to Henry’s mother and her new husband and child. It is soon clear that there is some kind of mystery.
Meanwhile Henry knows a boy at school whose father is thought to have run away from his job in the army during the war. This is such a disgrace that all the pupils and most teachers ignore the boy. But all is not as it seems and the truth is revealed at the end of the book. The attitude to Pip Morgan, who is similarly ignored simply because his mother didn’t marry his father, is interesting too.
Henry is a film fan and there’s a great deal in this fine story about the films he sees and the cinemas in which they are shown. Cinemas and films were an important part of many people’s lives in 1949 because there was almost no television and not much excitement. So the cinema was somewhere to escape to and large numbers of films were made, both in the UK and the USA. Henry, fascinated by camera technology, has set his heart on working in the film industry when he leaves school in a few months – although there’s a job waiting for him on the railways where his stepfather is a driver.
At the beginning of this quite long novel Henry is very bigoted and blind to what is going on around him. He hates his kindly, decent stepfather and resents his baby half-sister, Molly. Neither can he see his scheming, lying, lazy grandmother for what she is. Gradually he learns to value people for what they are rather than or whom they are related to or what their parents did.
This very entertaining new novel – from the author of the famous Goodnight Mister Tom (1983) – is full of likeable characters. Mrs Beaumont, who has a large house and befriends almost everyone in the story, as well as going to the cinema with Henry and others, is nicely done. So is Grace, the bright, talented girl who cannot read, much as she’d like to. A modern reader can see that Grace has dyslexia but the condition wasn’t recognised in 1949. I enjoyed Grace’s forthright great aunt and Mr Finch, the enlightened new form teacher at the boys’ school, too.
All in all this is a delightful, exciting, and often moving story with lots of twists and turns and plenty to think and talk about when you’ve finished it
Just Henry by Michelle Magorian. Egmont. ISBN 9781 4052 2759 5.
Reviewed by Susan Elkin