Queenie by Jacqueline Wilson. Published by Doubleday, 2013. Paperback, 416 pages. ISBN13: 9780857531124.
It’s 1953, the year Elizabeth is to be crowned Queen of England. Elsie Kettle can’t wait to go to London with her beloved nan to see the Coronation Day celebrations. Then tragedy strikes. Nan and Elsie both fall ill with tuberculosis and Elsie is whisked away to the children’s ward of Miltree Hospital. Confined to bed for months, Elsie misses Nan desperately, and struggles to adapt to the hospital’s strict rules. But every night after lights-out she tells magical tales of adventure to the other children on the ward. For the first time, Elsie finds herself surrounded by true friends – including Queenie, the hospital’s majestic white cat.
Finally Elsie is well enough to leave the hospital. But before she does, she has one very special, very unexpected visitor …
What did I think about this book?
I loved this! Although the video trailer portrays a young girl, the story will be loved by my Year 5/6/7 Jacqueline Wilson fans. In my opinion, this is just as good as the Hetty Feather trilogy and I am loving the authors foray into historical fiction.
The characters are beautifully and fully portrayed. Elsie’s Nan reminded me so much of my own Nana who I spent a lot of time with when growing up in the 1960s and early 70s. Reading this instantly took me back to her working class kitchen, being made milky coffees with tinned evaporated milk and luncheon sausage sandwiches on white bread with tomato sauce. For many readers this period is so far removed from their lives it might as well be ancient history – it felt very familiar to me, bringing back memories of Humber cars, wearing ankle socks and patent leather shoes, handmade corduroy pinafores and knitted cardigans. It was really interesting to read about the treatment of tuberculosis in both adults and children. I still find viewing medical equipment from this period, especially “Iron Lungs” in museum displays, creepy and scary. Being taken away from the people you loved and hospitalized in the 1950s must have been very frightening for any child. Elsie suffers from Bovine Tuberculosis, which tended to affect the bones and joints rather than the kind that affects the lungs. She and her ward mates are subjected to long periods in plaster casts and other paraphenalia and are completely bedridden. The children were often taken out into the “fresh air” and weak English sunshine to aid their recovery. I have just done a quick image search in Google looking for black and white photos of children in tuberculosis wards in this period and they are frightening. Eerily, many of the photos look exactly as I imagined the scenes when reading this book, right down to the matrons and nurses and their hospital corners, and the rows of beds outside.
Woven throughout the story is Elsie’s abandonment and dysfunctional relationship with her mother – another character vividly and realistically portrayed, revealing her unpleasant and selfish nature. There are the usual friendship issues; before diagnosis Elsie struggles to find friends (the stigma of having an unmarried mother and her poverty means she doesn’t make friends easily) and she takes time to find her way with the other children in the hospital – being a mix of ages, both genders and from different socio economic backgrounds. Through her friendship with Queenie the hospital cat, some kind nurses and eventually the real friends she makes in her ward, Elsie comes into her own. Even so, I found this one of the saddest books that I have read recently. The happy ending feels very hard won, but you can’t help but cheer alongside Elsie when it eventually comes.
Very highly recommended, and one I will promote outside the circle of usual JW fans.
AUTHOR WEBSITE: http://www.jacquelinewilson.co.uk (the books section contains a tab with a link to an extract from the book and other reviews).