My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’m surprised to realise that I’ve not formally reviewed The Chalet School in Exile. I’ve mentioned it repeatedly across my blog, and made no bones of my admiration for it. So now, it’s time to redress the balance and let you know why – and how – this book is outstanding.
Published in 1940, it became part of the narrative of the Second World War. Authors working in this time had roughly two choices (she says, generalising massively). They could either acknowledge the war – address it – or ignore it. Some of Brent-Dyer’s contemporaries sailed gloriously into a lavender scented future that made no reference to the tumultuous events occurring in the world outside their books. Brent-Dyer, however, did things a little differently.
Exile is a provocative and brave book and one that reaches beyond its nature as a ‘simple’ girls’ school story. This book is dense with ideology, and makes no bone in what it is. Just take a moment to think about that – a book being published, right when we’re in the middle of fighting the war against Nazism – that deliberately – and boldly – points out that not all Germans are Nazis. That nuanced ideology doesn’t end there, even after the Gestapo persecute the Chalet School community and lead to a group of the girls, Miss Wilson, Jack Maynard and Gottfreid Mensch escaping through the mountains to freedom.
Wrapped up in all of that, is some impressive notions on how women can fight war. There’s a deliberate and conscious separation of the women of the Chalet School from the ‘men’s war’ and even that most assimilated man into the community, Jack Maynard, very clearly refers to the Chalet School Peace League as “yours” and not his. Words and language are how these women fight – and survive – and the power of these words is potent, when the Peace League itself faces discovery.
So we’ve got all that, which to be honest is a book and a half by itself. But what we also have is a powerful journey of growth by these girl characters – a cipher if you will for the adolescent WW2 reader – and we have a society that we’ve come to love, surviving against all odds. The Chalet School – and therefore you – will – and does – endure.