A woman looks back on growing up in foster homes in England during World War II.
In this memoir, Mickelson (Our Sons Were Labeled Behavior Disordered: Here Is the Story of Our Lives, 2000) recounts her childhood. Born to a working-class Jewish couple in London, she and her sister, Viv, were moved to the countryside with other children to avoid German bombing. The sisters encountered kindness but also cruelty and anti-Semitism in their foster homes. Their first stay, with a good-natured vicar and his wife, ended abruptly when the vicar suffered a stroke. After spending six weeks across the street in the overcrowded Short residence, the girls moved to another foster home but had to leave when Mickelson contracted scarlet fever. Placed with a couple named the Canns, the sisters were treated like family members until one day they discovered Ma Cann dead in bed. Frightened by their next set of elderly foster parents, they ran away. After their billeting officer caught up with them, they stayed with a family whose mother hit and yelled at them, hollering, “That’s enough, you little kike!” at Mickelson when she wouldn’t eat bubble and squeak that “smelt like manure.” Following her expulsion from school, Viv returned to her parents. Mickelson eventually followed. But the sisters reunited only to have their mother die suddenly. Pondering anti-Semitism and their faith, Viv concluded: “Accept the fact that you’re a Jew and that everyone hates you.” Mickelson has written a stirring account of her childhood. The book is especially poignant because it’s written from the viewpoint of a child who can’t understand the purportedly rational adult world and grown-ups’ conceits and prejudices. The author’s particularly adept at description, whether reminiscing about eating wild mushrooms that “smelled of the fields and the sun” or the many characters who people this memoir, such as her sex-starved spinster Aunt Mimi, who wore a see-through pink organdy skirt, made lascivious remarks about the men around her, and ended up in a psychiatric facility. Capturing the quirks, kindness, and cruelty of her foster families, Mickelson delivers a sadly realistic personal account of life in England during the war and of the anti-Semitism that pervaded that country even as it fought Nazi Germany.
A moving work of memory—focusing on two sisters’ wartime struggles—that helps bridge the wide gulf between childhood and adulthood.