Mirador Publishing, 2017
One of the first exposures I had to British culture durning World War II was through Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a animation/live action children’s movie starring Angela Lansbury. The children of this movie have been shipped out of London by their parents because the city is under constant bombardment by Nazi forces. This was ‘The Blitz.’ Growing up in the United States, a nation with a crippling poor understanding of history and criminally underfunded and resourced public school system, our education in the events of World War II were often movie-based and/or Pacific-centric. Details, human details and experiences, of the war came filtered to use through Baby Boomer hobby fetishes. Thus, it was extremely rare to find narratives that were true and compelling and not some nationalist propaganda or couched in imperialist rhetoric.
So reading Shirley Dawson’s Billy, a work of historical fiction, centered around a boy surviving the Battle of Britain in what feels like a world away from his home and family was a moving glimpse into a time and place demanding our attention. This is especially true as so many countries in Europe are feeling the strain of war in the form of refugees and here in the United States our government is actively breaking migrant and refugee families apart. Billy is moving and authentic in its recollections. There are visceral emotional moments peppered into the banalities of life we all regularly endure.
Dawson has done an exemplary job researching her subject. This historical research is clearly not just academic but anecdotal to create a vivid account of seven year old Billy Arnold’s life moving from a bombed out London to rural Northumberland, that is the far north of England abutting Scotland. But Billy is also a personal story for Dawson giving this historical novel a deeper flavor.
In focusing less on the politics or militaristic detail and situating readers exclusively on the the experiences of a child of the time, Dawson has crafted a story that ought to resonate with many. A coming of age story set during war time is a familiar subgenre for many readers, yet Dawson’s Billy seems to almost have a touch of Thomas Hardy in some of the depictions making the story distant, quaint and then suddenly intensely real. Written in a plain, flowing style readers will not find themselves impatient with the prose or (as many American readers can become) drawn out by dialect and/or geography. For both American and United Kingdom readers, this novel will serve as a reminder that national character is shaped by world events. This is not to say ‘Billy is England’ but rather Billy Arnold becomes a compelling stand in for children enduring the chaos of the world and then taking ownership of it.
Shirley Dawson’s Billy is a moving and authentic tale of a child during wartime, a story that moves beyond its premise to enrich our sense of the past and our experiences in the present.
About the Author
I am a Norfolk girl, a county I love. Many things are written about Norfolk and I’m sure, nobody could deny its’ beauty and diversity. After I married, I moved to a small country village, approximately twelve miles away from the city where I was born and bred – it could not have been more different. My children were raised there and attended the local village school. Although many years have passed since those former years, all three children still enjoy the tranquility and the beauty of country life.
Most of my working years were spent as a secretary in a large, rural primary school. I was one of those rare people who loved their work, but, as the years wore on, I felt restless, and knew the time had come to have a complete change of lifestyle.
My husband and I decided to retire early, and soon after, we left our Norfolk home and headed to a warmer climate in Spain. Although we wondered if we would ever get used to a life without our children, we have enjoyed some wonderful years. At the time, we never imagined how different our lives would become. The agreeable climate lent itself to a full social life and, generally, a more relaxed way of living – a natural occurrence we initially found hard to adopt, being in complete contrast to our former hectic work schedules. Suddenly, we both had time for ourselves. Always an avid reader, I started to read even more books than ever. I had a yearning to write some years before, but now I thought more seriously about it – it was now or never!
Within four years I had completed a novel which I self-published for Amazon Kindle, followed by a trilogy for which I was fortunate enough to obtain the services of a publisher. ‘Billy’ was published in April 2017.