Tuesday 6 June 2023

Berlie Doherty's Dear Nobody by Paul May

Dear Nobody is one of those Carnegie winners that has managed to remain in print since its original publication and which has had a life of its own. It has been extensively translated and much used in schools to prompt discussion about teenage pregnancy. Berlie Doherty says on her website: 'I knew that in Dear Nobody I was handling a difficult situation. It is about two young people who love each other, but it's also about the ways in which love can go wrong, and how sometimes it can make us do things that aren't sensible or that hurt people. In a broad sense, it's about family love and family relationships, how sometimes love turns to hate and drives people and families apart.'

Well, yes, it is all that. But what struck me most about Dear Nobody was that it was about choices and how we make them. When I wrote on this blog about Berlie Doherty's first Carnegie winner, Granny Was a Buffer Girl I said that any of the stories in it could have been expanded into a full-length novel.  Dear Nobody is an organic development from that earlier book. While the story of the two protagonists is front and centre as Helen and Chris struggle to deal with Helen's unexpected and accidental pregnancy, all of their decisions are set against the background of the stories of their parents' and relations' own histories, which they learn about as the book progresses. I was going to say that their choices were influenced by learning about these stories, but I'm not sure that's true. It's more that those histories are held out to the reader as indications of the different paths lives can take.

In order to provide a range of perspectives, the families of Chris and Helen have dramatic pasts, and some secrets, which cast light on the issues of illegitimacy, abortion and youthful marriage. Chris's mum abandoned Chris's dad and their two young children when she realised that she'd married the wrong person too young. She went off to lead an adventurous, mountain-climbing life with her new boyfriend, cutting off all contact with her children. Helen's mum, it turns out, was illegitimate herself, child of a night-club dancer. She was treated as a 'slut' and Helen's mum, her daughter, as a 'bastard'. Then there's Chris's Auntie Jill who tells Chris and Helen about her abortion when she was a young girl. She's very clear that she didn't want a baby at the time, yet her story ends with a definite sense of sadness and regret.

Nothing is more life-changing than giving birth and there are very few choices made in life that are as difficult and terrifying as those confronting an accidentally pregnant teenager. You have to decide how and when to tell your parents and friends. You have to decide where and how you are going to live with this new baby. And you have to decide whether you should have the baby at all. Different possible versions of your whole life are revealed to you in ways that have almost certainly never happened before. 

You are also under pressure. Certainly Helen is under pressure from her mum to have an abortion because she doesn't want Helen and her child to endure the stigma and abuse that she and her own mother experienced. Likewise, Helen's dad is obsessed with his ambition that Helen should go to music college because that's what he always wanted to do and couldn't. Chris's dad is more balanced, but Chris's dad is a man who married too young, and both he and Chris's mum (who Chris meets again for the first time in years) warn Chris about the implications involved when he says he won't just walk away from his responsibilities to Helen and the baby.

In the end, Helen takes control of her own destiny. She alone decides that she will have the baby; she alone decides that she's not ready to share her life with Chris. In that sense the book's message is an empowering one for teenage girls, and perhaps because of that I found Helen a more convincing - or perhaps I mean more interesting - character than Chris. Helen grows through the nine months of the story, and I can't help feeling that Chris is diminished. He wants to take responsibility, but is told that he can't/shouldn't/ is throwing away opportunities/is not ready, and it seems that he takes it all on board. Helen is told she's throwing her life away and refuses to accept that is true.

I think this is a very different kind of book to any that have previously won the Carnegie, one which is intended to put options before the reader, inviting them to consider what they might have done themselves. The way the book ends does encourage the reader to imagine what might have happened to Helen and Chris later in their lives. I find it hard as an adult reader not to be aware of the artifice in the book, the way it's constructed to put this range of points of view about the situation, but I suspect that younger readers see things differently, and become involved and identify with Helen or Chris or both. Indeed I noticed one young Amazon reviewer (how I love scanning Amazon reviews - a vice, I know) who just couldn't see the point of the story about Chris's mother - it was a distraction from the main story.

There are very few other teenage love stories in Carnegie history up to this point. The earliest of these few, The Lark on the Wing by Elfrida Vipont, won in 1950, forty years before Dear Nobody. That book was also about a young girl who wants to pursue a career in music (she's a singer), but there's no question of university - she has to earn a living - and the heroine spends the entire book totally unaware that her suitor is in love with her. It makes quite a dramatic contrast to Dear Nobody, and it was no place to look for other stories of teenage pregnancy or indeed sex. Then I remembered Lorna Sage's memoir, Bad Blood. 

As Clive James remarks on the cover, 'This is not a book for children, but neither was her childhood.' It does however demonstrate that teenage pregnancy need not be a bar to achievement, as Lorna takes her A levels and persuades Durham University to change their rules to admit a young married woman. Her husband Vic goes with her and during term-time Lorna's parents care for the baby. The story was remarkable enough to make the pages of the Daily Mail, and you can read more about Lorna Sage and Bad Blood here.

That was in 1960, so it could be done, even 30 years before Dear Nobody.

Lorna went on to become Professor of English at UEA, where she had the misfortune of trying to teach me about Jane Austen. I can picture her now, behind the crowded desk in her smoke-filled office, fag in her trembling hand, trying and failing to understand why I was incapable of handing my essay in on time. I felt bad about that, and maybe the experience helped me to become more attentive to deadlines later in life. 

Berlie Doherty's excellent and comprehensive website provides much more information about Dear Nobody.


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