Drawn from real-life World War II experiences, Hilda van Stockum created an endearing story about children and family life during the second world war in Five For Victory. Hilda van Stockum was born in Holland to Dutch-Irish parents where she was homeschooled through the age of eight. As a teen, she moved to Ireland to attend Trinity College and Dublin’s Metropolitan School of Art. After falling in love with her brother’s American roommate, she moved to the U.S. with her new husband and they raised six children in Washington, D. C., and then Montreal, Canada, and then Ireland and England. Ultimately, Hilda retired to England to be near to three of her daughters. Mrs. van Stockum has a wonderfully international background which informs her storytelling with a delightful authenticity. When she includes a character from another country in any story she writes, she does not do it as a device, but rather as an expression of something real.
In this darling story, van Stockum features a perfectly normal family living in Washington, D. C. during World War II. Largely autobiographical, the family lives with their Dutch grandmother. The five Mitchell children, their mother, and their grandmother share the house with an English border while their father and uncle are deployed. The story is a celebration of family and the everyday occurrences in the lives of children. Despite some challenging war themes, the picture that van Stockum draws for us is one of timeless innocence, radiant hope, and childish joy. Much like her Winged Watchman, this story gives children a healthy and wholesome look into the life of children living during war.
When Hilda was asked who was the primary protagonist in the Mitchell series (this is just the first of three books), she replied that the family was the protagonist. That each character had a vital role to play in the drama of family life. I love that! And, I think that she has done that beautifully.
The story opens with the Mitchell family seeing Mr. Mitchell off to depart for his deployment. As he takes leave of the children, he addresses the eldest child, Joan, with one prescription: no dogs. Mr. Mitchell hates dogs. With that, he departs and the family makes the heavy-hearted and harried trek back to their home. Any good reader of children’s literature will probably smirk at this opening; “No dogs.” It is impossible not to wonder when and how many dogs will feature in the story about to unfold. In the case of this charming tale, Joan keeps her promise, but not without collecting an entire menagerie of other pets. And, just because she keeps her promise doesn’t mean that a dog doesn’t make an appearance.
The story has a hard start. The train station is busy and bustling, hard and impersonal, full of shops, and generally a challenging place for a young mother of five children to be saying goodbye to her husband. The youngest children are difficult to manage, war rations make it hard to afford conveniences, the shops provide too many temptations, and the women are worried about the deploying men. Mother and Granny have a very difficult task to manage. When they finally get the children home, Mother discovers that Daddy has the housekey in his coat pocket.
“If all misfortunes were like missing a latch key, thought Joan, the world would be a merry place. It didn’t take her and Peter long to climb from the mulberry tree to the porch roof and from there through a pried-open window.”
The next chapter begins and we see within a few words that this is going to be a Victory Family who work as a team to solve their little problems and contribute to the war effort in the small, everyday ways that millions of families were doing all over the Allied world. To use an apt adjective twice in the same review, the Mitchell family is absolutely endearing.
Throughout the 236 pages, the children fight, they get new neighbors, they go to school, they pretend to have scarlet fever, they collect an odd assortment of pets, and they befriend a Dutch refugee child. The story ebbs and flows just as a children’s story should. The children make many small mistakes but their good mother corrects them appropriately. Each child, the older ones especially, grows in virtue and some in grace. While the setting is wartime, the life is utterly relatable to childhood at any modern time.
My children were 5, 7, and 9 when we read this. All of them loved it. My youngest seemed to have loved it best. In some ways, this story reminds me of the American Girl Molly books. Much richer writing, but similar themes. It also reminds me of Lucy Maud Montgomery. Granted, this is set in the U.S. and not Prince Edward Island, but the childish antics seem reminiscent of Avonlea and Story Girl. The international theme (the Dutch refugee girl and the English housemate) enrich the story to give it more substance and more connection to the war itself.
A wonderful read aloud! The illustration is pen and ink sketches by van Stockum, and it absolutely adds to the joy and delight in the story.
Sara has reviewed the sequels (spoiler-free), Canadian Summer and Friendly Gables here. In that review, she quotes our interview with John Tepper Marlin (Timmy Mitchell), son of Hilda van Stockum, and lets us know which Mitchell is which Marlin.