An Unlikely Pair Form A Wily Duo In 'Crooked Heart'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Noel Bostock is a 10-year-old boy whose world is being turned upside down by war. He's evacuated from his bohemian London neighborhood during the Blitz to small-town St. Albans. He's taken in by a woman called Vee Sedge and her idle son and impassive mother. They survive a war in which the enemy is not always German bombers overhead but pointy-headed bureaucrats and pettifoggers. The story of their survival is at the heart of "Crooked Heart," a new novel by Lissa Evans. And Lissa Evans, who's been both a doctor and a comedy producer for the BBC before she began to write books for children and adults, joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.
LISSA EVANS: My pleasure.
SIMON: What do the folks in this unlikely duo see in each other?
EVANS: They see nothing at first. When we first meet Noel, he's living in a very loving household with his godmother, Mattie, who's an ex-suffragette. But at the start of the war, his godmother, Mattie, dies.
SIMON: You gave that away.
EVANS: Oh, no (laughter).
SIMON: (Laughter) Go ahead.
EVANS: It happens quite early on. Do you want me to backtrack?
SIMON: Spoiler alert - no, no, it's your book.
EVANS: (Laughter) Noel is evacuated just outside London to a city called St. Albans, a very small city. And there, because he's slightly odd-looking, because he's got a slight limp, because he's not talking, he's not one of the first children to be picked. He's taken round all the houses and he's chosen by Vera Sedge, who is a woman, as you say, living in straitened circumstances, and who sees in Noel a possible helper to the dodgy schemes by which she lives. And as he becomes interested in what she is doing, he realizes that he can help. And it wakes him up emotionally, and they become a scamming duo.
SIMON: I - there's a delightful section I want to get you to read about when Noel and a group of big-city London kids are being evacuated to the outer provinces - they don't know where - during the Blitz, if you could read that section.
EVANS: Yes, sure. (Reading) I am sitting next to Harvey Madely (ph). His backside is so enormous that he is wearing his father's trousers cut down into shorts. Where are we going, sir, asks someone. All very hush-hush, said Mr. Waring (ph), I have not been party to the plans. Is it Wales? Let us hope not. They don't speak English in Wales, said one of the Ferris (ph) twins. The only discernible difference between the Ferris twins, wrote Noel, is that one of them is even more cretinous than the other. They eat squirrels in Wales, said the other Ferris twin. I won't go anywhere with cows again, said Alice Beadows (ph). In Dorset, I could see a cow out of every window and I could smell a cow out of every window.
SIMON: That's a wonderful section that helps us understand how their worlds were shaken up. They were safe, but on the other hand...
EVANS: Well, on the other hand, they were sent all over the country to households who often weren't expecting them and the children themselves didn't know where they were going. They didn't know which town they were going to, who they would be staying with, whether they would be staying with friends or even their siblings. It was extraordinary.
SIMON: And there were a lot of schemers. There were families who would take them in just because it increased their food coupons.
EVANS: There were, indeed. And in fact, quite a lot of the research for my book - well, it certainly started with a newspaper called The St. Albans Advertiser - and I kept on stumbling across scams. I've got one here, actually. This is directly from the newspaper. She has shown considerable ingenuity by her forgeries. Giving a false address and using the names of children that do not exist made the matter very difficult to detect. This was somebody called Doris Evelyn Hart (ph) who was claiming a billeting allowance for six children who weren't staying with her. And this was very common because you got, actually, a decent weekly wage for taking in an evacuated child.
SIMON: The schemes that Vee and Noel eventually come up with - they begin collecting for the Dunkirk Widows and Orphans Fund...
EVANS: That's right.
SIMON: ...Which is their own pockets. They're illegal, but were they wrong?
EVANS: That's the whole dilemma. It's wrong, but Noel decides it is a lesser wrong than a crime he stumbles upon later in the book because it hurts no one. And it's this distinction between legally wrong and morally wrong which sets the whole plot on course in the second half when Vee and Noel come across someone who really is causing pain and trouble to other people by their illegal activities.
SIMON: You have written books for adults, young adults and readers who were children.
EVANS: I have.
SIMON: And, my gosh, you've had an interesting careers.
EVANS: Well, I did science at school, largely, when I was a teenager and I became a doctor. I did five years medical school and became a doctor and was terrified for every single second of my medical career. I'd seemed to emerge from medical school with a qualification but nevertheless, I seemed to know nothing and was so scared and...
SIMON: (Laughter) Forgive me, I'm so glad I didn't blunder into your practice.
EVANS: Well, do you know, patients liked me 'cause I was really jolly and nice and what they didn't realize is they'd probably been much better off with some mumbling introvert who actually knew something. And in fact, I dreaded it. And my only happy day as a doctor was one sunny summer day where we got no admissions at all and I sat on the lawn outside the hospital and read "The Longest Journey" by E. M. Forster. That was the only happy day, and in the end, I didn't go back. And I thought, well, what could I do? I'm not qualified for anything else. I thought, the only thing I've done is comedy. And I applied for and got a job with BBC Light Entertainment in radio.
SIMON: I am among those that think that British humor is one of the great forces for civilization in the world.
SIMON: But that being noted, it must be rough to - a challenge to take a comic approach to the Blitz, which is, in a sense, the great national heroic story of Britain.
EVANS: It's interesting, isn't it? I mean, I suppose this is the way I write. It's not that I see humor in everything but that most people do see humor in even the saddest things. And what was so extraordinary about the Blitz and what attracted me to it was the idea of ordinary people trying to do ordinary things in an extraordinary situation. And some of those ordinary things are making jokes, going to the cinema, going to the theater. And the book before "Crooked Heart" was called "Their Finest Hour And A Half" and that was about the making of a feature film because I very much wanted to write about what it was like to be behind the scenes. And then I stumbled across a fantastic quote by a pre-war actor which said, once work begins in studio, nothing outside is of any relative importance. And I thought, gosh, that's so true, but what about during the war when there are actually bombs falling outside? And I started researching and I discovered that it was no difference at all. Even in the middle of the Blitz it still took, you know, 12 people to decide the color of the leading man's tie. It was still ridiculously solipsistic and people still cracked jokes and people still were sarcastic and rude and funny - that didn't change at all.
SIMON: That's what got them through.
EVANS: I think it was, yes. I think that striving for ordinary.
SIMON: Lissa Evans - her new book, "Crooked Heart," comes out next week. Thanks so much for being with us.
EVANS: Thank you, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.