Review: Lizzie and Margaret Rose

I often take a ridiculously long time to get around reading something I feel is going to be good. Rather like leaving the roast potatoes (my favourite part) to the very end of a roast dinner. Then suddenly a book will call to me, wanting to be read. I believe this way invites a more organic reading experience. And what a book at such a time!

Lizzie and Margaret Rose is a gripping middle grade novel by accomplished historic children's author, Pamela Rushby set in the early years of World War II. Rushby wastes no words on superlative mundane description rather chisels her supremely defined characters from the world in which they exist. From the shrapnel strewn streets of London to the balmy coastal suburbs of Townsville, Rushby's talent for honing emotion from action allows readers to engage head on with ten-year-old Margaret Rose and her eleven-year-old Australian cousin, at least this reader did in a way that required the occasional swiping away of tears.

When Margaret Rose's family is wiped out during the London Blitz, she is eventually sent off to Australia to live with her immigrant Aunt and Uncle. The long and convoluted journey from England via Singapore to Australia is fraught with anxiety and peril. The threat of enemy ambush from above and below threatens their every nautical mile. Margaret Rose is forced to adapt, and adjust to conditions, weather, people and emotions that are alien to her yet for all the strangeness, a certain calm befalls her at sea. She is in between the past and the unknown future and for Margaret Rose, this feels the surest place to be.

Ten thousand odd miles away, larrikin Lizzie enjoys a life less burdened by the presence of war. She is able to frolic in tropical waters after school and visit the 'pictures' on a Saturday afternoon. Her main concerns are watching out for sharks and making her weekly sixpence stretch from one Saturday to the next. The arrival of her English cousin changes everything; the bedding arrangements for one. Lizzie's nose is severely put out of joint. Not only does she have to share her room with Margaret Rose, this newcomer dilutes her mother's attention and has managed to impress both her principal and arch rivals the Gallagher boys.

As Lizzie's and Margaret Rose's relationship deteriorates, the war intensifies. Unbelievably, by mid 1942 Townsville finds itself digging trenches, building air raid shelters and enacting drills. It's a nightmare of bad memories for Margaret Rose who worries that if her own family cannot keep her safe, the authorities may yet again send her away. If she can’t make amends with her cousin and prove that she really belongs with this family, she is not sure she will ever be safe again. And all the while, the Japanese bombers roar and whine ever closer.

Rushby injects a huge amount of historic fact and detail into this swiftly paced tale that essentially follows Margaret Rose from one fraught place of being to another. What I found profoundly coincidental (because I happened to read this during the Covid-19 crisis) were the parallels between the feelings of uncertainty, fear, bewilderment, and resignation with those the whole world is once again feeling, this time in the 21st Century, not to mention the similarities between social interactions, shortages of essential items, and the psychological distress that results from such extraordinary and dramatic, life-threatening change.

There's probably a technical term for such congruities, yet I'm still shocked that I'm able to draw these comparisons, in my lifetime. I never thought I'd have to.

This though, is what gives Lizzie and Margaret Rose double relevance. It is not just a stirring story about a slice of history middle school students have no firsthand knowledge of, it is also quite by chance, a story that they can now attribute actual feelings, actions and outcomes to. Fluky but so very fundamental for understanding the greater world in which they live. If you can find a copy, read it.

Top marks.

Title: Lizzie and Margaret Rose
Author: Pamela Rusby
Publisher: Omnibus Books, $16.99
Publication Date: October 2016
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9781742991528
For ages: 10 – 14
Type: Middle Grade Fiction

Buy the Book: QBD, Reading Time


Norah Colvin said…
I might take your advice on this one, Dimity. It sounds good. I'm not usually disappointed with your recommendations.
DimbutNice said…
That is very flattering, Norah. I do hope you like it if you read this one as much as I try to be objective and useful when appraising a story. This one really moved me. Rushby is an accomplished writer who backs her tales with solid historical realism. D

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