Archive for the ‘childhood’ Tag

My Life in Music: 1971

Throughout the 1970s, I was growing up in Lancashire in the north of England. My life experience was limited, and although I have memories here and there from quite early in life (the earliest one being riding in a little seat that was fixed on top of my baby sister’s pram, at which point I would have been about three years old), the memories are snippets, and a bit hazy after all these years.

Toddler Sara, in 1971

In the picture here I think I am about 18 months old. Clearly not yet toilet trained as the nappy is on full display. There were no disposal diapers in those days; they were all terry cloth, with plastic elasticated pants worn over the top. I remember a big yellow plastic bucket that my mother used to wash my little sister’s nappies in. It smelled of ammonia. I can still recall that smell.

I also don’t know where this particular picture was taken, but I always thought I look quite determined to make my own way down from wherever it was.

Anyway, for the next couple of entries in this series about music I am cheating a bit because I really don’t remember much about the music of the early 1970s. So instead I am picking a song that was released this year, but which meant a lot to me a bit later in life.

I was six when my parents divorced. I don’t have many memories of us all living together. What I do remember, though, is that after that point and before we moved to Canada, my sister and I spent weekends with my dad and we listened to a lot of country music because that was what he listened to. I grew to like it. I still have a liking for country music, however uncool it might be to admit it, and for the last couple of years I have attended the Country 2 Country Music Festival weekend at the O2 in Greenwich. I go with my dad because there’s nobody else in my life who likes country music enough to put up with a whole weekend of it.

Anyway, when we left England to move to Canada with my mother, my dad gave me a cassette of all of my favourite songs from his country collection. I was ten years old at the time, and moving thousands of miles away from my dad and from everything in my life that was comfortable and familiar was a big upheaval. I listened to the tape a lot, because it was the only link I had to my dad, and every time I did so I felt desperately homesick.

So the song for 1971 is by John Denver, and was released in this year, and it’s all about longing to be home. Although he’s singing about West Virginia being home, whenever I hear this song I think of my dad’s house in Ashton-under-Lyne, which had no TV and no central heating and was never actually my home, only a place I stayed on weekends; but still I hear this song and I think of it. And it takes me back to being a lonely, homesick ten-year-old.

I still cry every time I hear this song. So although the memories it holds for me are not from 1971, the song has such a powerful hold on me I had to include it in this series of posts.

Here, then is the song for 1971: “Take Me Home Country Roads” by John Denver.

My Life in Music: 1970

I really don’t remember much about the music of 1970. I was too busy eating, sleeping, pooping, and growing, the way babies tend to.

Baby Sara, 1970

I am not sure how old I am in the accompanying photo. Six months, maybe? So it was probably taken in the spring of 1970. Colour photography had been invented by then. But my grandfather, who took the picture, was a keen amateur photographer and had a black and white camera.

Anyway, back to the song. I’ve gone for a song that was a hit in 1970, and it’s an Elvis song. My mother is a big Elvis fan, and I grew up knowing rather a lot of Elvis songs, because she was always playing them.

I’ve picked this one, because I remember this song on the radio, though I very much doubt I remember it being played the year it was released. It was apparently Elvis’s most successful UK single, staying at #1 in the charts for six weeks in the summer of 1970.

Because this blog is all about the memories associated with music, I should also mention what I think about whenever I hear this song. I think about my mother, and the way she cried when she learned about Elvis’s death. But that was not until 1977. I also remember the flat we used to live in after my parents divorced, but we did not move there until 1976. My memories of the house I was living in in 1970 are rather vague, and aren’t really associated with any particular song, but I will explore this further as we move on in this series.

I always thought of this song as a ‘big song’. The sort of song you want to sing along to, even if you’re not a big fan of Elvis.

The video I’ve chosen for this song is not actually a video – it’s a collection of stills of Elvis. But he’s looking pretty good in most of them, and I think my mother might appreciate it. And the sound quality of this recording is a bit better than the other versions I could find on Youtube.

So may I present the song for 1970: ‘The Wonder of You’ by Elvis Presley.

Childhood Hero

One of my favourite TV shows as a kid was ‘The Bionic Woman’ starring Lindsay Wagner. Jaime Sommers was my hero. She was smart, she was resourceful, she was super-strong, and she generally managed to rescue herself without any help from the men, because if she got locked up somewhere she could just punch her way out. I remember bounding around the play ground in slow motion pretending to be the bionic woman – because in the show (for some reason) whenever super-fast bionic running happened, it was done in slow motion.

I had the bionic woman action figure as a kid. It was one of my favourite toys, and it came with a bag of cool accessories – a wallet full of dollar bills; maps; mission instructions; make-up. All doll-size. When I played with my Jaime Sommers doll I made her jump over the sofa, making that clicking noise that generally indicated she was using her bionic powers.

My husband bought me the box set of The ‘Bionic Woman’ on DVD for Christmas last year, and it features all three complete seasons, plus the four episodes she originally appeared in from ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’. Her first appearance was in a two-part series. She was Steve Austin’s fiancee and a tennis pro, then she gets seriously injured in a skydiving accident, and Steve convinces Oscar Goldman to shell out the millions of dollars needed to bionically rebuild her. All goes well at first, but Jaime’s body rejects the bionics and she dies at the end of the second episode. But when ratings are high enough TV deaths are always reversible, and Jaime Sommers proved so popular, she was brought back from the brink of death and a second two-part episode in ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ has Steve discover that Jaime is still alive. But alas – she’s lost her memory and doesn’t remember being in love with him.

And so from there spun a separate series that ran for three seasons, and I’ve been working my way through them chronologically. There are few things I’ve noticed about watching a show for the second time 40 years later.

Firstly: I watched every episode as a kid, but as young as I was at the time, I enjoyed the action, but I didn’t follow every nuance of the story line. I am re-watching episodes I remember watching when I was six years old, but I realise I was misremembering them.

Secondly: I realise that watching this show sowed the seeds of feminism in me at an early age. Even in the 1970s, in a less politically correct time, Jaime Sommers was a fantastic role model. As already mentioned, she was able to get herself out of pretty much any situation, as the villains always underestimated the strength of this ‘mere woman’. An early episode in season 1 has Jaime take her class of schoolchildren (for the day job she works as a teacher) on a picnic. When the boys refuse to let the girls play softball “because everybody knows girls are no good at sports” Jaime bargains with them that if she can score a home run, the girls get to play. So of course with her bionic arm she hits the ball and it flies for miles, she proves her point and the girls get to play baseball.

But I am also realising, in this retro re-watch, that actually it’s not a very good show. Apart from the appalling seventies fashions (orange and brown wallpaper? How did anyone think that looked good?), we have cardboard cut out villains, wooden acting, and implausible storylines. And then of course there are a few logicistical problems with the whole concept of bionics. Bionics are effectively cybernetics, something that I guess was a fairly new and exciting thing in the seventies. Having two bionic legs and a bionic arm are all well and good, but without a bionic spine, if you try to lift a car you’d do yourself a serious injury! And given the fact that Jaime’s bionic limbs are complete replacement for her biological ones, which got crushed beyond recognition in the skydiving accident, there is absolutely no scarring. There are a couple of episodes in which she wears swim suits, and there is no mark at all to indicate where her real skin ends and her bionic body parts begin.

But as a kid I didn’t think about any of this. I was just enraptured by the show. I found it scary at times. The last episode of season one involves a young girl (played by Kristy McNichol) obsessed with her dead mother, who was apparently accused of being a witch, and spooky things keep happening. I haven’t got to that one yet in my re-watch but I remember being creeped out by it the first time I watched it. I also haven’t got to the episodes featuring the ‘fembots’ – female robots who set out to kill Jaime. But the scenes in which the fembots walk around with no face masks, revealing a pair of staring eyes amongst circuit boards and wires terrified me as a child. I had nightmares for weeks about fembots. Hopefully they won’t creep me out quite so much forty years on.

I am enjoying my trip down memory lane in rewatching this series, and having a slightly more objective take on the impact it had on my childhood – good and bad. As I finish this blog post with the theme tune of ‘The Bionic Woman’ I’d like to open the floor to all of you reading. What TV shows from childhood had an impact on you, and have you ever watched that show in adulthood? If not, would you want to? Or is it better to keep memories of childhood firmly buried in the past, instead of running the risk of shattering one’s illusions by realising that the show you thought was amazing was actually rubbish?

My Favourite Toy

The main reason I got so excited about Christmas was as a kid was because it was a time I used to get loads of fantastic new toys.  The presents I get nowadays are just not as exciting as they were back then.  And I suppose I’m a lot more cynical in my old age.

actiongirl

Action Girl as she looked when I first got her

However, of late I’ve had conversations with people my age about favourite Christmas presents of childhood, and that’s got me thinking back to my favourite toys.

I have to say that my favourite toy of all time was Action Girl.  I don’t remember what year I got her, or even if she was actually a Christmas present.  But she was manufactured between 1971 and 1977, and my guess was I got mine around 1976, when I was about six or so. This picture on the right is actually of my doll – same red hair, same outfit.  And she was presented in this box.  Check out that psychedelic 1970s outfit – all brown and orange!

There were many accessories available for Action Girl, including clothes and furniture.  One of my big beefs was that apart from the rubber boots that she came with (see picture) none of the shoes you could buy her ever actually fit.  Unlike other fashion dolls, Action Girl’s feet were realistic looking, with soles and heels and five toes.  The plastic high-heeled shoes that generically came with every Action Girl outfit never actually fit on her feet properly.

In the UK, we didn’t really have Barbie in the 1970s.  We had Sindy instead, who was a fashion doll known for her distinctive round head and big eyes.  I had a Sindy too, but I preferred Action Girl.  Action Girl was fully flexible and every joint could bend.  Each section of the doll was connected to the next joint by a length of wire.  It wasn’t pretty, but it made her far more interesting than Sindy, who wasn’t nearly as flexible.

Sindy as she looked in the 1970s

Sindy as she looked in the 1970s

Unlike Action Girl Sindy is still available, but she’s been through a few face lifts since she looked like she does in this picture.  In the 1980s she looked rather a lot like Barbie.  So much so, in fact, the manufacturers of Sindy got sued at one point by the manufacturers of Barbie, so Sindy’s face had to change once more.  Nowadays, it seems she looks a lot more like she did originally, and she’s once more got the round head and large eyes.

Although I preferred Action Girl to Sindy, Sindy had  far more accessories than Action Girl did, and with Sindy being a more enduring design they were more easily available.  So over several Christmases I got Sindy’s bed, and dressing table, and wardrobe, and even Sindy’s horse, but I used them with Action Girl, not Sindy.  I never got the saddle for the horse, so Action Girl used to ride bareback.  She was cool that way.

I named my Action Girl Jennifer, and she went everywhere with me.  I even took her into the bath with me, which in retrospect was a bad idea.  First of all, those metal pins holding her joints together rusted.  And her hair, which was made of nylon, frizzed up and got completely ruined after the first dip. But none of this bothered me.  I loved her, and the two of us had many wonderful adventures.

When we moved from England to Canada in 1980, we had to get rid of a lot of our toys because we couldn’t take them all.  Action Girl was one I made a point of taking with me.  When I moved back to England, aged 18, limited on space again and having to get rid of stuff once more, I still brought Action Girl with me.  For much of the last decade, I had her sitting on my PC, inspiring me to write.  She got put in a box when we moved house two years ago, and sadly didn’t fare too well in the move.  In fact she broke in half.  Her waist was fastened with that rusted pin and two elastic bands, connecting her top torso to the bottom and allowing her to swivel, but after 35 years those elastic bands were perished.  Somewhere over the last few decades one of her plastic hands, which also swivelled (I thought it was neat that her wrists could move in a complete circle), broke and fell off and got lost. But I can’t bear to throw her out, so she’s still up in the attic in a box.  I’m still trying to decide if I want to get her restored to her former glory, or whether it’s best to keep her in her original state, battered and broken though she may be.  At least this proves how much she was loved.

So, with a week to go until Christmas, it seems appropriate to open this topic up to conversation.  Can you remember those Christmases past, and what your favourite childhood toy was?

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

When we first moved to Canada from England in 1980, I was ten years old.  There was no email, in those days.  The World Wide Web was not available to all.  In order to stay in touch with all the people I’d left behind, I’d started writing letters.  There were a lot of people I wanted to stay in contact with.  School friends.  Aunts, uncles and cousins.  Grandparents.  My father and step-mother, who were still back in England.

Most people wrote back.  I would look forward to getting home from school and checking the mail, to see if any letters had arrived for me.  I made a point of replying to every one.  I became very good at writing letters, and the process became a ritual.  I kept every letter I received in a letter rack, stacked in order of receipt with the oldest in front.  When I sat down to write a reply, I would reply to the person whose letter I’d had the longest.  If the person had asked any questions in their letter, I would make a point of replying to them, whether it was something generic like “how is school?”, or as specific as, “how did that play go you were rehearsing for last time?”  I would also write about any news that had occurred since last time I wrote to the person.

My letters were long, generally running to at least six pages, sometimes more.  A lot of people gave me stationery sets when we moved to Canada.   Generally they contained a number of decorated front sheets, the same number of envelopes, and half as many continuation sheets.  I never understood this, because it wasn’t enough.  I used up all the continuation sheets within two or three letters and then either had to use more than one of the front sheets, or carry on with pieces of ordinary lined notepaper.  I always wondered why there were never more continuation sheets than front sheets.  How could anyone possibly have so little to say they could do it in a letter only a page long?

Somewhere in the last 20 years, the art of letter writing has been lost.  I admit I don’t write letters any more.  Many of the people I used to write letters to are now on Facebook, so I keep up with their news that way.  Pretty much all of them are on email, and I will occasionally send people newsy emails.

I write emails the way I write letters – in fact, the way I write anything.  Sentences are complete, with all the punctuation in the correct place.  They tend to be very long.  Sometimes I miss writing letters, but it occurs to me that writing this blog is, for me, the modern equivalent of writing letters.  I can relay my news via the World Wide Web, and I don’t have to repeat myself – something of an advantage over letter writing, I must admit, as in my letter-writing heyday I was repeating the same news in every letter.

Nobody writes letters anymore, and not many people write long emails, either.  I can’t decide if this is down to laziness, to the fact that life has just got so busy, or that people’s attention span has got shorter in the last 20 years.  We are used to being fed instantaneous information, in short bursts – Tweets; texts; 30 second commercials.  Now nobody wants to be bothered to read to the end of a lengthy email.  A lot of people seem to write emails the way they write text messages – devoid of grammatical structure, and full of crass abbreviations (“u” instead of “you”) and erroneous spellings.

Most people do not communicate via lengthy emails.  Some people communicate entirely by mobile phone.  I have always been a person who prefers written communication to verbal.  There are very few people I have long telephone conversations with.  If I’ve not seen you in a while and I want to chat, I am more likely to send you a long chatty email than I am to pick up the phone.  But, I am a writer.  Written communication is and always has been my strength.

Sometimes I mourn the lost art of letter writing.  I sometimes regret we can’t go back to those long-gone days when I used to look forward to getting home and reading a letter that had arrived in the post for me.

I also mourn the correct use of English.  I don’t know if grammar has been removed from the school curriculum these days – the appalling state of some people’s Facebook statuses makes me suspect it has been – but certainly letter writing has been.

It may be that people have no need to write letters any more, but kids should still be taught how to form a sentence.  Effective written communication, even by email, is an essential life skill.  What chance have you got of getting the job if the cover email that accompanies your CV is written in text-speak?  If I received a job application like this I would delete the email without even bothering to look at the CV.  If I get an advertising brochure from anyone featuring a misplaced apostrophe in the word “its”, I will make a point of avoiding whatever product it is advertising.  There is no excuse for poor grammar, and no excuse for not knowing how to form a correct sentence.

If we were all taught how to write letters, we’d all be aware of that.

Fear

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

When I was a little girl, there was a game I used to like to play with my dad. We called it the ‘Hand Stand Game’. He would lie on his back on the floor, arms above his head, palms up to the ceiling. I would plant a foot in each one of his hands. Holding onto my feet he would slowly raise his hands, then sit up, then get up into a standing position, all the while with me balancing on his hands. Besides what it says about my dad’s upper body strength (I know I can’t stand from a lying position without using my hands), I think we gave my mother heart failure whenever we played this game. As a four-year-old, I ended up pretty high off the ground. And yet I did this with confidence, and without fear. Until I got to about nine, and then suddenly I lost my nerve and I couldn’t do it anymore. I had acquired fear.

Fear is a learned emotion. We don’t possess it as children. Two things teach it to us. Firstly, we learn fear through consequence. If you get stung as a small child by a wasp, you learn to be afraid of wasps. If you touch a flame and burn your finger, you learn than fire is to be feared. The other way we learn fear is because the adults around us teach it to us. “Don’t play too close to the water; you’ll fall in and drown,” they say. “Don’t climb to the top of the climbing frame. You might fall off and hurt yourself.” The concept of falling hadn’t occurred to us before then. But once someone plants the idea in our head, it’s there forever.

It is the same with writers. Why do so many of us get discouraged? We fear failure, perhaps. As a child, I happily wrote story after story. I wasn’t really thinking about whether or not they were any good. I wrote them because I wanted to, and I didn’t really mind who read them. But then I hit puberty and my self-confidence took a pummelling. What if the stories I wrote really weren’t any good? Like George McFly in “Back To The Future”, I decided it was better not to let anyone read them, than have to deal with rejection.

I had to overcome this, of course, because I’d decided I wanted to be a published writer. I had to face my fear of rejection and start sending stuff out. I learned that rejection hurts, but it doesn’t kill you. I also sought to learn how I could improve my writing, and thus increase its chances of acceptance.

I think it’s this acquired fear that holds many of us back. We fear what we’ve written isn’t any good. If you’ve got one book published, you then fear that you’ll never write another one of publishable quality. You fear your book won’t sell. You fear you’ll never finish the one you’re working on. There are so many things that we fear. But we have to push on despite that fear.

So we are afraid of falling. That shouldn’t hold us back. Yes, we might fall. But if we do, we can get up and try again. Fear of falling shouldn’t stop us from the climb. After all, we might not fall at all, and in addition discover that the view at the top is spectacular.

Rock Chick in Training

I took on a new hobby last year. I started taking bass guitar lessons.

I’ve had secret ambitions to be a rock chick for years. I think it started with Suzie Quatro, in the 1970s. She was a Cool Chick who played bass. She looked like a woman who knew what she wanted, in spite of being so small the bass guitar she played was practically as big as she was.

At my 40th birthday party – with the 80s theme – I indulged in my fantasy and turned up dressed as Joan Jett. Complete with 80s rock star wig. See attached pic for the evidence…

I can’t play the guitar I’m holding in this picture. A few years ago we got a bass guitar for me, I got myself a book of lessons, and attempted to learn, but I found it all rather tedious and not being very disciplined about these things, soon gave up and the bass guitar sat amongst all of hubby’s electric guitars, untouched, for years.

Last year I decided to pick it up again. This time I booked weekly lessons. This I thought would make me more inclined to stick with it. Unfortunately, there are no more hours in the day than there were before, and trying to fit in practise time, amongst everything else in my life, is sometimes tricky. I quite often go to my lesson and my tutor says, “how’s practise been going this week?”. And I have to say, “er, it hasn’t….”. Fortunately he doesn’t get too cross when I admit I haven’t picked up the bass between lessons. I just have to accept that progress will be slow when I don’t practise.

Hubby has been encouraging me to play some fairly basic bass lines so I can accompany him on his Open Mic nights. But he’s been playing for over 30 years and I’ve been playing about 9 months, and sometimes I have to remind him of that.

He bought me a shiny new shoulder strap for the bass. It’s hard to make out clearly in the attached picture, but it’s a bright yellow strap with “crime scene – do not cross” written all over it. I thought it was highly appropriate, and it makes me happy to have it on my bass.

I can now play three songs that I am happy to get up and accompany Chris on when he does them at Open Mic nights. The attached video is the first (and so far only) filmic evidence that I play bass in public. I’m not in the opening shots, but the guy behind the camera, Gerry, did a pretty good job of making sure I got my fair share of camera time.

So this is me, Chris and Julia doing Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” at Bar XLR in Epsom.

My Life In Books: The Witches

We’re going slightly out of order here because I didn’t read this book as a child. However, as it’s a children’s book, I thought it was best to publish this post at the end of my section on children’s books, before I move on to the books I read in puberty.

Roald Dahl’s THE WITCHES was published in 1983, at which point I was 13 and had decided I was far too old for kid’s books. Such irony here, as I got to be a grown up and decided I wasn’t too old for kids’ books after all.

When I was 19 I had a job working in a book shop in central London. In some ways I really enjoyed the job – I loved being surrounded by books, I loved putting the books in alphabetical order (one of my favouring pastimes), and we were free to borrow all the books we liked from the shop. There was also a 40% staff discount if we wanted to buy any. What I didn’t like, though, was having to deal with customers. In the end I decided customer service probably wasn’t for me.

Anway, staff members had to take turns being on ‘cash register duty’. As the cash register could not be left unattended, if you were on this shift you had to sit there until relief arrived, whether there were customers or not. If the shop was quiet, in these days before computers at every work station and mobile phones, it could be pretty boring. There were always piles of books around the till, so if there were no customers to serve I would reach for whatever book was handy – no matter what it was – just to have something to read. One such occasion, THE WITCHES was to hand, so I read it in one particularly quiet afternoon whilst on ‘cash register’ duty.

I think THE WITCHES still holds up as a marvellous kid’s book. It has the archetypal Dahl violence – the protagonist is a young boy (in the book he is never named) whose parents are killed in a traffic accident. It contains some delightfully subversive messages – for instance, as witches can sniff out children, and the scent of a clean child is much stronger, it’s better for children not to bathe too often.

As usual in a Roald Dahl book, there are adults being very nasty to children – possibly this is the most extreme example, as the witches are out to eradicate every child in Britain. The protagonist also goes through a rough time. Not only does he find himself an orphan, the witches turn him into a mouse and he has to foil their dastardly plot in this form. The boy, with the help of his grandmother, manages to defeat the witches, tipping the potion the witches planned to use to turn all children into mice into the witches’ soup. All the witches turn into mice at their banquet, and they are destroyed by the hotel staff who think they have a serious rodent problem.

What I really like about this book is that it has a somewhat bittersweet ending. Although all the witches are defeated, the boy remains a mouse. But he’s happy to remain so. He still has his grandmother, and she loves him dearly, and he decides it doesn’t matter what you look like as long as you have someone who loves you. And although he won’t have a long life as a mouse, it means he won’t have to out-live his grandmother and face years being alone.

The film version, predictably, changed the ending to a somewhat saccharin version where one of the witches decides to be a good witch instead of an evil one, and turns the main character back into a boy. I much prefer the book’s ending. It teaches you that things don’t always go the way you want them to but they generally work out OK in the end, and that’s a very important lesson to learn.

This post brings me to the end of the first part of this series – books of childhood. But there are still plenty of books left for me to talk about, and in the next part I will be moving onto the books that made an impact on me as a teenager.

My Life in Books: The Bears’ House

Another Marilyn Sachs book, this story is narrated by nine-year-old Fran Ellen, the eldest child in quite a large family. The family’s father is absent, and it seems their mother isn’t coping well with his departure. It’s implied that she’s an alcoholic, but Fran Ellen isn’t really old enough to understand this, she just knows that Mum spends a lot of time in bed. She does understand, however, that if anyone comes to the house and finds out their mother isn’t doing a very good job looking after her kids they will all be taken away and put into foster care. Fran Ellen is so afraid that she and her siblings will be split up when this happens, she does her best to look after the family herself, so no one will discover what kind of state their mother is in.

Fran Ellen has a particular fondness for her baby sister Flora, who she feeds Kool-Aid out of a baby bottle. Flora gets increasingly sick as the book progresses, a fact that worries Fran Ellen but she’s afraid to go to the doctor. Her only solace is the wonderful dolls’ house at her school, in which a family of bears reside. The teacher lets the children play with the bears’ house as a reward for good work or good behaviour. When Fran Ellen plays with it, she transports herself into the house, where the caring bear family love her and offer a security her real life family cannot.

The teacher declares that at the end of the school year, she will give the bears’ house to the most deserving student. Fran Ellen doesn’t think for a moment that it will be her, as there are so many prettier, cleverer and more popular pupils in the class. And yet she is the one the teacher chooses to give the house to. When the teacher gives Fran Ellen and the bears’ house a lift home, she discovers the appalling neglect Fran Ellen and her siblings endure, and Fran Ellen knows that life as she knows it is over.

Part of the attraction of this book for me was the wonderful dolls’ house the bears live in, and I did wish I could be Fran Ellen so I could play with it. But even at the age I was when I read this book (about nine, I think), I recognised that Fran Ellen was having a really hard time at home. This is a very depressing story, about neglect and alcoholism from a child’s point of view, and from Fran Ellen’s perspective it doesn’t end happily. The book ends with her and her siblings being taken into care and sent to separate foster homes.

It had an impact on me, and I think when I wrote SUFFER THE CHILDREN, years later, I was channelling Fran Ellen through Leanne, another character who suffers neglect and who goes out of her way to avoid attracting the attention of the authorities, out of fear of losing the only home she knows.

When I decided to include this book in this blog series I had to look it up on Amazon, because I couldn’t remember who wrote it. I discovered then that Marilyn Sachs wrote a sequel to THE BEARS’ HOUSE, called FRAN ELLEN’S HOUSE, in which Fran Ellen and her siblings are reunited after being separated in foster care, and she tries to restore the fractured relationship they now have to the closeness they had when they all lived together with their alcoholic mother. I think I will need to read this book. I always regretted leaving Fran Ellen in such a sad place at the end of THE BEARS’ HOUSE, and I would like to know if she found happiness.

My Life in Books: The Truth About Mary Rose


In browsing Amazon looking for this book, I realised I read rather a lot of Marilyn Sachs books as a child, but I didn’t release at the time, because I didn’t pay much attention to the author’s name when I was young. I picked up a book because I liked the cover, or the blurb on the back made it sound good. I’ve generally remembered titles, however, which is why I’m able to locate all these books I read in childhood, 30-odd years after the fact.

Marilyn Sachs wrote a few books featuring a character called Veronica Ganz, a troublesome girl with a reputation of being a bully, growing up in the US in the 1940s. I didn’t know this when I discovered THE TRUTH ABOUT MARY ROSE, which I think I found in the library when I was about 10. I don’t actually remember what the cover of the book I read looked like – it certainly wasn’t the one featured here, which appears to have been created for a modern re-release.

Veronica Ganz the bully is all grown up in this book, and has a respectable career as a doctor. The narrator of the story is Mary Rose, Veronica’s 11-year-old daughter, named after her aunt, who died in a house fire as a child (Veronica’s sister Mary Rose appears in the books about the young Veronica Ganz, portrayed as an irritating and whiny little sister, but there’s no hint of her dreadful fate).

Veronica’s daughter has grown up idolising the memory of her aunt, who she believes died a heroine, rescuing her younger brother Stanley from the fire. Only when the young protagonist eavesdrops on a conversation she shouldn’t be listening to, when her uncle Stanley recounts what really happened that fateful night does she learn the truth, and her illusions are brutally shattered.

I identified with Mary Rose when I read this book because like her I had a habit of creeping out of bed late at night, so I could listen to the conversations adults have when they think all the children are asleep. Like Mary Rose, I learned some painful truths this way.

It’s been over 30 years since I read this book but it’s stayed with me all this time. It deals with some pretty heavy issues – after all, the main plot of the story revolves around a child dying in a house fire. The concept of having childhood illusions shattered as one grows up is a major theme, too. And of course there is a lesson to be learned also – if you illicitly eavescrop on private conversations, you might hear things you wish you hadn’t.

I still wonder sometimes where Marilyn Sachs got the idea of a child who creeps out of bed to eavesdrop on the adult conversations. Did she do this herself as a child, or know someone else who did? I’m willing to bet I wasn’t the only kid who did this.

Of course, being nosy is a common trait amongst writers – listening to other people’s conversations is the best way to get an insight into human nature. Being nosy is a useful trait for amateur sleuths, too, so I decided to give my amateur sleuth, Shara Summers, the same bad habit as a child. She, however, has less guilt about it than I do.

Anyone else out there willing to admit that they were this nosy as a child?