The Innocents, by Nette Hilton

Missie Missinger was nine years old. Old enough, her mother had said, to do as she was told without argument. It was wearing her into the ground and if she didn’t watch out, Aunt Belle would be looking around for someone who didn’t have a quarrelsome little girl to put up with and get herself another live-in and then where would they be? Missie wasn’t sure but, as she rather liked living in ‘Charmaine’ at No 1, River Road, Lansdale, she didn’t pursue it. And so on the day it happened, on the Saturday when Judith Mae, who wasn’t even invited, had been sent upstairs in order to give her father some peace and quiet, Missie hadn’t argued.

Missie Missinger is a little girl restrained by many things. Her mother’s work and even where they live appears to be dependent on her behaving well. She’s not to use the front door. She’s not to disturb the boarding house guests. Then there’s Max. Max is the owner’s son. He likes his model trains and he likes pushing Missie around. And he knows that she can’t ‘dob’ on him, that no one will believe her. Missie has few friends at school until Zill arrives. There is Jimmy, but he’s always in trouble. Missie has a lot of time on her own while her mother manages the boarding house, and she begins a tentative friendship with a Ukrainian migrant youth who has come to live there. Oleksander Mykola Shevchenko works hard and keeps to himself but it’s not easy to be a migrant in a small town in the ‘50s. And then there are the secrets. To tell means trouble for Missie. But there can be an enormous cost to keeping secrets.

There are at least two ‘innocents’ in The Innocents. And neither are traditional young adult literature protagonists. One is nine years old. The other is twenty, new to Australia but carrying with him the horror of the war. Oleks is both young and old. The Innocents is told from both Missie’s and Oleks’ point of view, although Missie has the lion’s share of the story to tell. Missie is trying to find her way through a childhood hampered by her mother’s dependence on her live-in job, the places she must and must not go (though she’s not always sure why) and the murky world revealed (or not) in adult words. Oleks carries heavy memories of war and the challenges of being different, foreign. There are themes of racism and the dynamics of family. The cover hints at the darkness within and both Missie and Oleks are weighed down by their different burdens. The resolution provides hope for the future, but shows the high cost of secrets. Recommended for mature readers.

The Innocents, Nette Hilton
Random House 2010
ISBN 9781864718744

Reviewed by Claire Saxby Children’s book author.

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