Thursday, 14 March 2013

A Proper Place (Joan Lingard)

--The blurb--
"A Protestant girl and a Catholic boy from Northern Ireland cope with family members, the baptism of their child, and a move from the Liverpool slums to a Cheshire farm."

--The review--
History teaching in British schools is something that has been under the microscope a lot lately, with historians being split over Michael Gove's curriculum plans, and everything being discussed from what sort of history should be taught to whether black children are being turned off history. The problems seem to be as follows: that students will not be able to come back to topics when they are older and will understand them differently thanks to the newly proposed chronological approach; that the new system would stress facts and dates over real understanding; and even that 'the whole story' would still not be told. As Benjamin Zephaniah pointed out in his October 2012 speech, part of the problem is a lack of accessibility and key human details being missed out. Book series for children such as the Horrible Histories have already done a great deal to get primary school children fired up about history - however, there is little in the way of exciting material for teenagers.

This is where books such as Joan Lingard's Kevin and Sadie series could come in to play on the 'human interest' aspect of history and thus draw in the young. The fourth instalment, entitled A Proper Place, continues to do what its predecessors, including Across the Barricades, started, by getting inside the lives and minds of a struggling young couple who yearn, as the title suggests, to just have a place of their own in times of great difficulty. With Kevin and Sadie having always lived in bustling towns, a move to the countryside could have easily been portrayed as unnecessarily traumatic or overly rosy. However, Lingard manages this well, pointing out the advantages and disadvantages with flair, while also succeeding in pointing out the reality of how people change and move on when they relocate, even if they only move a short distance away. 

Another successful aspect of the Kevin and Sadie quintet is the author's portrayal of them as plucky young people who can be overly optimistic, but equally quick to become moody or angry. This helps to prevent readers from idolising them, as we are able to recognise when they behave stupidly, and this also means that Lingard's didactic purpose is never far away. Tensions between Kevin and Sadie's respective backgrounds are more prominent in A Proper Place, as they are in its sequel, Hostages to Fortune. This follows on appropriately from the earlier books in the series, where the historical facets were kept more distant from the story. In this way, young people reading can learn more about the tougher times in Northern Ireland's recent history while simultaneously being engaged by a story combining romantic love and young tearaways.

An effective addition to the series is Kevin's young brother, Gerald, who gets sent to Kevin and Sadie by his mother to get his life in order. His wildness adds a further dimension by bringing out new elements of Kevin and Sadie's personality, particularly as he is living and working with them and so constantly being in close proximity to them. His happy ending is an inspiration to readers, showing that even the very worst behaviour can be forgotten and turned around with a little hard work. Equally, Kevin and Sadie themselves are hardworking and hopeful, with modest aspirations, even if at times they can be rash and silly, which, it is hoped, shows young teenagers that they are not expected to emulate characters whose achievements are impossible to imitate. 

However, one also has the feeling that the world has changed greatly since the mid-1970s, with the job and housing markets now being very different places, with more emphasis on urbanisation and a university education (and a rural lifestyle and vocational outlook being marginalised). This does not mean that Lingard's views are overly idyllic: even if they are presented innocently in some places, she does not shy from the realities of the Northern Ireland that Kevin and Sadie have escaped, without resorting to gratuitous violence. This therefore does not stop the Kevin and Sadie series being a compulsive read, and one to thoroughly recommend to young teenage readers.

Other works by Joan Lingard*
The Twelfth Day of July (1970)
Into Exile (1973)
Across the Barricades (1973)
Hostages to Fortune (1976)

*All of these books comprise the remainder of the Kevin and Sadie quintet. A far more exhaustive list of Joan Lingard's books for children and adults is available on Wikipedia.

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