Cuckoo in the Nest, Michelle Magorian

I have been burning through PaperbackSwap credits like they aren’t making them anymore, y’all. All of a sudden, everything on my wish list has been coming in at once. Lovely PaperbackSwap. If you are not familiar with them, please let me know and I will send you a referral. I have gotten such wonderful books from PaperbackSwap, including both of Joan Wyndham’s first two books (which are the two I wanted anyway). And earlier this month I got Cuckoo in the Nest, another Michelle Magorian book about British evacuees and their challenges on both ends of the evacuation process. (The other two of course were Good Night Mr. Tom and Back Home, and evidently there are others, but PaperbackSwap has not yet supplied me with them.)

The beginning: We begin in medias res, with everybody bickering. The Hollis home houses three siblings (little Elsie and Henry, plus nearly-grown Ralph, back from several years in Cornwall), an adopted cousin (Joan, yearning to be married and away), a long-suffering mother, her complaining sister, and a father who resents Ralph’s apparent abandonment of his own working-class values and ideas. The house is tired from the war and tired from crowding, and everybody is angry at everybody else. In particular, Ralph and his father are furious with each other. Ralph only wants to be an actor, and his father wants him to settle down to regular life and work in the paper mill.

When Ralph gets fired from the paper mill (for having a smart mouth), he has to seek work elsewhere. Desperate to get his foot in the door at the local theatre, he volunteers to help with sets on Saturday evenings. Meanwhile he gets a job as a gardener and odd-jobs-doer for a wealthyish Mrs. Egerton-Smythe, whose overbearing son controls her finances and won’t let her do anything she wants to do.

The end (spoilers in this section only; highlight blank spaces to see them): I didn’t really need to read this, I suppose. You always knew what was going to happen. Mrs. Egerton-Smythe’s dreadful son gets his comeuppance, and Ralph and his father come to an uneasy understanding of each other. It is nice to be able to count on Michelle Magorian for a good ending, even if the middle is extremely sad. (You may recall certain events that befell certain characters in Good Night Mr. Tom that I have still not full forgiven Michelle Magorian for.)

The whole: Not quite as strong as Back Home, still my favorite of Michelle Magorian’s books. But it was exactly what I was expecting and exactly what I was in the mood for. I love stories about parents and children misunderstanding and disappointing each other and ultimately realizing how much they love and respect each other. (Cf. Power of Three, among many many others.)

And okay, yes, there were some convenient coincidences that helped Ralph’s theatrical career along. That cannot be denied. On the other hand, I don’t care! I like for people to achieve their dreams so there cruel world. Not everybody who works in the theater can have a sterling work ethic, and I felt fine about having one ditsy rich theater girl batting her eyes at everyone and failing to do her duties so that Ralph could swoop in and save the day.

I will leave you with this Monty Python skit. I think of it every time I read one of these working-class-parents-with-posh-kids books. Graham Chapman is such a delight. Angry is my favorite look for Graham Chapman. (Manic for John Cleese, officious for Michael Palin, straight man for Terry Jones, and uncomfortably chatty for Eric Idle, in case you are wondering.)

Have you read anything by Michelle Magorian? Her most famous Good Night Mr. Tom, or one of her more obscure books?

  • Bookgazing

    I read this when I was a teen – what a blast from the past. And for some reason I had no idea it was by the author of Goodnight Mr Tom. I mostly remember it because when Ralph’s dad is all ‘So you’re not gay, but I thought actors…’ young me was all ‘boo, I really wanted him to be gay’ because young me was starved of LGBTQ lit.

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahaha, you know, I kind of felt that way too. I thought that would have made it a more interesting book in a lot of ways.

  • I agree–not quite her strongest, but still very good. Never Jam Today is about Ralph’s sister…

    My faovrite of her books is Not a Swan, published in the UK as A Litlte Love Song. It’s about sisters on the verge of being grown-ups evacuated to the countryside during WW II, and how they cope. The US edition is very different indeed from the UK one–there’s a third sister. I read them both, thinking they were different books, and like the US one much better!

    • Gin Jenny

      Oh gosh! I wonder why they changed it so much for the US. I’ve got Not a Swan on my PaperbackSwap wish list, and I’ll just have to hope that they send me the US one. There’s an entire character in the US book that isn’t in the UK one?

  • Ash

    My heart nearly skipped a beat when you said ‘Power of Three’ because it seems relatively obscure compared to the rest of DWJ’s oeuvre and the family dynamics and uncomfortable father-son relationship in it was so beautifully subtle that I get a lump in my throat every time I think of it. What is great in both stories is how the muddles and misunderstandings in those relationships are resolved – it’s like both father and son realize that they are not each other’s enemies and that the people closest to you might show their love for you in ways that you might not realize or even understand, because sometimes it’s not that kind of relationship (where being demonstratively affectionate is super non-awkward). Also that while the fathers might never fully understand their children, they kind of bemusedly and lovingly release them into the wild in the end.
    I never linked these two books in my head so thank you for that revelation 🙂

    • Gin Jenny

      Yes yes yes to everything you’ve said. I shrieked with joy that you have read Power of Three–I love it when people are familiar with Diana Wynne Jones’s not-as-popular books. As I get older and older, I’m more and more impressed with the emotional insight in her books. I love how the father-son relationship resolves in Power of Three too, and Gair finds out his father’s really proud of him all along.

  • Tangent regarding irresponsible people in theater: my sister is a theater professional, and I can tell you, if you show up, pay attention remember things, do your job, don’t complain, and offer to help out, you are ahead of a lot of people and likely to be looked on as gifted. Basically, make the stage manager like you.

    I haven’t been on PB Swap in ages; time to log in!

    • Gin Jenny

      Well there you go! That’s exactly what Ralph does, and it’s how he keeps getting to come back.

      The best thing about PaperbackSwap is the wish lists, I’m telling you. It took me a while to fully appreciate them, but damn, they are the best. It is so nice to log into my email in the morning and find a Wish Granted email in my inbox.

  • Haha, all I could think of while reading this post was Graham Chapman blustering, “Toongsten carbide drill? What t’ bluidy ‘ell is a toongsten carbide drill?” and then you posted the link! Joy! Also, now I really want to read other Michelle Magorian novels. Alas, I have not been able to read Back Home. Don’t know why; just can’t get past the first chapter.

    • Gin Jenny

      Whyyyyyy? Mumsy whyyyyyyy? You get bored, is that why?

  • Bill

    Re-reading ‘Cuckoo…’ after about 3 years…fantastic description of life in post-war Britain and the sense that the ‘war’ was not over! Out of interest, Elsie’s story is continued in ‘Spoonful of Sugar’ and an older Ralph makes a quick appearance in ‘Just Henry’…I love it when authors overlap their characters!