Review Blog

Mar 18 2013

Queenie by Jacqueline Wilson

cover image

Random House, 2013. ISBN 9780857531124.
(Age: Yr 3+) It is 1953 and Elsie Kettle and her Nan are looking forward to seeing the coronation of the new Queen. But all their plans are dashed when Nan's persistent cough turns out to be tuberculosis and she is hospitalised in the sanatorium.This means Elsie's mum, who occasionally visits in between showgirl engagements, has to return to look after Elsie. But not for long, because mandatory testing shows that Elsie also has tuberculosis. Hers is not in her lungs, but in her knee - transmitted by drinking infected milk which was common in those days. Her limp, which so aggravated her mother, was not caused by her ugly boy-shoes nor put on for attention and she too finds herself in hospital.
But hospitals and treatments in the 50s are not like they are today and Elsie finds herself in Blyton Ward with seven other children, each strapped into splints and kept immobile for months. Being the new girl is hard enough, but it's made worse by seemingly harsh and uncaring nurses, particularly Nurse Patterson, strict routines, no privacy and a bedside neighbour who immediately christens her Gobface. Each evening the children are read a story from Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree series and Elsie's ability to create new stories, particularly one about Nurse Patterson meeting her fate in the Land of Polar Bears, gradually allows her to fit in. However, she has always sought solace in cats, whether on her Nan's button box, her pink pyjamas or the real thing, she brings them to life so she is not so lonely, so her spirits are lifted when she befriends the ward cat, Queenie.
It is her ability to escape to a land of fantasy that enables Elsie to endure the boredom, pain and loneliness, particularly on the weekends which is the only time parents may visit and her mother doesn't turn up week after week after week, even after the Queen visits. Elsie knows she has acquired a new 'uncle' and this is confirmed when her mother disappears to Canada which raises a whole lot of issues because Elsie is due to be discharged. Who will look after her?
This book plods along at a sedentary pace opening up a world very different to what any Australian child might have experienced in hospital. The thought of being totally incapacitated locked into what Elsie first believes are torture racks seems unimaginable but that was the treatment of the times, and many children underwent it until milk became tested and treated and the risk of infection eliminated. Yet despite its rather grim setting and storyline, Wilson has crafted a charming story with engaging characters which carries the reader along wanting to help Elsie, shake some compassion into her mother, bless Nurse Gabriel and put faith in a happy ending. With its 411 pages, it is better for the independent reader who is able to manage such a task and if this is their first Jacqueline Wilson title, they will be looking for others.
Barbara Braxton

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