Tuesday 31 July 2018

Things A Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls

Things a Bright Girl Can Do is a YA story that grabs its title from a much older book called Three Hundred and One Things a Girl Can Do. Published in 1911, it included things like how to decorate a church, make coloured fires, the rules of croquet, how to pitch a tent, do magic tricks and how to make a parachute.

However, Nicholls has not written another how-to book for girls. Her bright girls are coming of age in pre-WWI London with the suffragette movement in full swing and the threat of a war on the horizon. As you would expect from Sally Nicholls, Things a Bright Can Do is well-written and well researched.

One little thing kept bugging me though. Nicholls went to a lot of trouble to describe the time and place and she gave the reader a fabulous feel for what life was like for a Victorian girl, but she kept ascribing her main character, Evelyn adolescent behaviours and thoughts that resembled a modern teen. Given that the 'surly, self-absorbed teen' is a modern construct, dating from around WWII, it felt out of place and unauthentic.

It may have been a device to engage the modern teen reader, but I feel that lovers of good historical fiction can cope with the idea that society viewed the teen years very differently at different times. And that it might even be constructive to have that conversation with modern teens.

Once we got passed this little hiccup though, the book settled into an exciting, absorbing story.

Three young women are our protagonists. Evelyn from a wealthy family, is well-educated, but only so far. Her brother gets to go to Oxford but not Evelyn. She's expected to marry the boy next door and give tea parties. Instead she gets caught up in the suffragette's cause and finds herself going from handing our leaflets, to marching, to stonewalling parliament house and getting arrested. A life-threatening hunger-strike causes her to rethink her beliefs and the best way to express them.

May is from a Quaker family. She and her mother are heavily involved in helping the women's cause via non-violent protests - petitions, meetings, letter writing campaigns. After her mother is declared bankrupt for non-payment of taxes (a choice she made in protest about not being able to vote), May questions if this is the best way to change people's minds. May is also gay.

Nell is from the poor streets and comes from a large family, living hand to mouth, day by day. Nell has grown up wearing her older brothers hand-me-down clothes, but it has never worried her. She prefers wearing pants and playing cricket with the boys. She is attracted to girls. Nell gets impatient with suffragettes (and politicians) who talk a lot about social justice but do little to actually improve the lot of women and children living in the slums of London.

World War One changes everything for all three girls. In good ways and in bad.

The relationship between May and Nell is explored thoughtfully, whereas Evelyn's relationship with Teddy feels less well-developed. Perhaps because Teddy is not as well drawn as the three girls are by Nicholls, until right at the end, when he has been injured in the war.

Having Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth still very much in my mind, I was impressed to read a section that was obviously referencing Brittain's thoughts and experiences in the lead up to the Battle of the Somme. In her afterword, Nicholls acknowledged her gratitude to Brittain as the character of Evelyn obviously has a lot in common with Brittain.

Nicholls certainly writes an engrossing historical fiction and like all writers of history she has to make choices about how best to tell the story she wants to tell which involves what to leave out, what to gloss over and whether or not to go for accurate use of language. Nicholls choices are not jarring or even deal breakers, but they are evident to the adult reader.

All Fall Down was an earlier YA book by Nicholls about the Black Plague that I also enjoyed.

Book 13 of #20BooksofSummer (winter) drop-in title
21℃ in Sydney
16℃ in Northern Ireland
I read this book during the July #reversereadathon

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