Barbara Euphan Todd was best known as the children’s author who wrote the Worzel Gummidge series about a scarecrow who comes to life. Miss Ranskill Comes Home, first published in 1946, was her only adult novel.
Shortly before the start of World War II, Nona Ranskill was swept overboard whilst on a cruise and was washed up on a desert island. The only other inhabitant of the island is a man known as ‘the Carpenter’, who had also fallen overboard on an earlier occasion. At the beginning of the book, the Carpenter has died and we first meet Miss Ranskill as she’s digging his grave. Before his death however, he had managed to finish building a boat with which he had intended to sail himself and Miss Ranskill to safety. After burying the Carpenter, Miss Ranskill makes an attempt to escape from the island on her own. Luckily, before she becomes hopelessly lost at sea, she is rescued by the British Navy. Returning to England after almost four years, Miss Ranskill discovers that it’s not the England she left behind: in her absence, World War II has begun…
This may all sound very far-fetched, but Todd actually makes it seem believable. I thought the whole idea of someone being cut off from the world and returning home only to find themselves suddenly thrown into the middle of a war was absolutely fascinating. I particularly enjoyed the first half of the book which deals with the first few days of Miss Ranskill’s arrival in England, when everything feels strange and surreal. Even the English language seems different and full of unfamiliar words. When she tries to buy food she can’t understand why she’s asked for her ‘ration book’, or why she needs ‘coupons’ to purchase clothes. This leads to some very amusing situations but at the same time you can’t help but feel sorry for poor Miss Ranskill.
Although he’s dead before the story even begins, the strongest character in the book is the Carpenter. He is constantly in Miss Ranskill’s thoughts and his presence is there on almost every page in the form of flashbacks and memories. Although Miss Ranskill’s friends found it scandalous that she had spent four years in the company of a strange man – particularly a man they consider to be of a lower social standing – I think anyone who has read this book will agree that if we were stranded on a desert island, the Carpenter is exactly the type of person we would like to be stuck there with.
Makes it more homely-like, Miss Ranskill, see.
That had been one of his favourite expressions. He used it as he arranged stones round the smoky fire, and when he handed her a shell.
Saucer, see, Miss Ranskill. We mayn’t have cups, but we’ve plenty of saucers. Makes it more homely.
His optimism and words of wisdom had helped to sustain Miss Ranskill during her time on the island and continue to give her comfort on her return to wartime Britain. However, the years on the island and the company of the Carpenter have given her a new outlook on life and she finds it difficult to adjust. Unlike her friends and family who are all absorbed in their war work, Miss Ranskill feels detached from what’s going on and spends most of the book remembering the island and even feeling nostalgic about the fact that she had to eat fish for every meal and wear the same clothes for nearly four years! England may have changed, but Miss Ranskill has changed even more.
This book has the perfect blend of humour and poignancy and gives us an opportunity to explore World War II from a unique perspective. Recommended.
Pages: 328/Publisher: Persephone Books/Year: 2003 (originally published 1946)/Source: Library book