Strangers at the Farm School

Josephine Elder's Strangers at the Farm School was an op shop find, only two dollars! It was my first introduction to Josephine Elder (though Girls Gone By have published some titles of hers) and to the Farm School series, of which this is the third and final volume.

Published in 1940 but set in 1938, I found this book so interesting on a number of levels. Published in the middle of the war, there are a few pointed references to Hitler, but the focus is on a pair of young Jewish refugees who have been sent to England to escape growing persecution in Germany. The oppression is nicely judged -- not too horrific for young readers, but menacing nonetheless. Johanna and Hans have experienced bullying and exclusion at school, and their father has been imprisoned in a concentration camp. Though the siblings are described in the text as having dark colouring, the illustrator (or publisher?) has chosen to make them rather fair on the cover (probably not for any sinister reason, but maybe to provide a contrast with the better established characters also pictured).

The Farm School is an unconventional school but so successful that it's experiencing an influx of new students, some of whom have trouble adjusting to a school with few rules and lots of hard work on the farm. Annis, the newly elected School President, has to deal with some 'rowdy' boys as well as the traumatised refugees, and this leads to some interesting philosophical ruminations:

"... The bees are too unselfish. They've squashed themselves so much that they're just machines, they can never get any better or cleverer than they are...I don't want us to be selfish, but I do want us to be happy -- and if we're doing things we like doing as well as ever we can, we shall be happy and the school will be good... a state -- like I said -- would be -- almost heaven, I should think -- "

So the ideal is not Fascism, with all its rules imposed from above, nor Communism, with everyone equal but 'squashed,' but a self-regulated liberal society where everyone puts in necessary labour but also works hard to excel at their own particular gift. Heaven, indeed! The point is not laboured, but it's pretty clear.

Disappointingly, in an otherwise quite subtle book, though the Jewish refugees are treated with nothing but sympathy and understanding, the same is not true of the 'gippos' -- while it's admitted that gypsies 'don't kidnap children anymore,' (my emphasis) contact with them still demands a disinfectant bath afterwards. And there is a gratuitous reference to someone behaving like a 'black slave.' So while Elder was probably progressive for her time, it's a shame she didn't think it through just a shade further. Still, Strangers at the Farm School is definitely a cut above your average school story and I'm interested to read Elder's other works.

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