A Letter to Mother

Of all the novels I read whilst at primary school, the one that sticks in my mind most vividly is Carrie’s War. Now acknowledged as a children’s classic, the story tells of the experiences of Carrie and her younger brother Nick when they were evacuated from London to a Welsh valley during World War Two. Not only do the children have to cope with the trauma of leaving their family and treasured possessions behind, including their beloved dog, they have to endure the ordeal of being selected for a billet and attempting to settle in to an unfamiliar home with some less than congenial adults.

When I first read the book, the lasting memory I had was of a sense of place, the slate grey valley and the gloomy trees surrounding the old rambling house at Druid’s Bottom. Reading the story again last weekend, however, it was the characters who spoke to me far more clearly than the setting, and it is on characterisation that Mr Hastings has been focusing in his lessons this week.

By asking the children to put themselves in Carrie’s shoes and write a letter to mother, Mr Hastings intended that they would explore the finer nuances of the story, as well as developing the important skill of writing with genuine empathy for a fictional character. As the children’s ideas became more refined, their letters reflected their deepening understanding of the often challenging relationship between Carrie and Nick and the ways they found to come to terms with their new and harsh environment.

On a technical level, Mr Hastings wanted to make his group more critical of the ways in which they go about forming sentences. In Form 4, the emphasis is increasingly on producing compound and, ideally, complex sentences using subordinating and co-ordinating conjunctions. After a discussion of terminology on the whiteboard, Mr Hastings drew everyone’s attention to the helpful hints sheet, which will be available throughout the year inside the back cover of the children’s exercise books. HaoHao in particular felt that this approach helped him improve his sentences considerably and become more consistent in his use of verb tenses.

The third key strand of the letter writing task revolved around drafting and redrafting, a skill in itself, which children find quite daunting in the earlier years of school. Based on their developing understanding, and the comments pencilled by Mr Hastings on the drafts, most children radically revised their pieces, gaining considerable satisfaction from seeing how their work had been developed and enhanced. Reviewing the drafts side by side, Alice could see immediately that her second draft was a huge improvement on her first.

The children will now continue to read Carrie’s War in class, and hopefully will feel inspired to read more of the books by Nina Bawden that we have in the school library, as well as other titles on a wartime theme that Mr Hastings has recommended for his group. The characters have helped to engage the children’s interest in the book but many, such as Noah, have been encouraged to find out more about the evacuee experience during World War Two. However, although Carrie’s War is a novel set during wartime, the war itself is only a background presence. The unnamed valley where Carrie and Nick find themselves feels very remote from the fighting and the bombing, so it is the story, rather than the historical context, that is the lynchpin of this book.

The finished letters will be displayed in Mr Hastings’ classroom, and I hope you will have a chance to read them and enjoy them as much as I have done.