After reading Chris Offutt’s My Father, the Pornographer, I figured I needed a book with a less dysfunctional family. Because Lissa Evans’ novel, Crooked Heart, is about a boy and his foster mother running cons in World War II London, it was the obvious next choice. Noel Bostick lived with his godmother for years, before her dementia lead to her death. His cousins would have taken him in, but they just didn’t suit. Noel is then evacuated to the suburbs, taken in by Vee Sedge who doesn’t mind doing a good deed when it comes with a subsidy and an extra ration book. Oddly enough, the arrangement is the start of a beautiful friendship.
I didn’t get far into the prologue of Crooked Heart before I know that Noel had to grow up too soon. Dr. Mattie Simpkin was a fiercely independent woman, a suffragette and intellectual. Her decline into dementia is heartbreaking. Noel cooks and cleans and cares for his beloved godmother as much as he can, but Mattie has a fatal accident. With his unusual upbringing—assigned essays on politics and philosophy, anti-authoritarian discussions, etc.—Noel does not fit in with his conservative cousins. His decision to not speak and write his observations in code unnerves his “Aunt” Margery so much it’s actually a relief to all parties when Noel is evacuated.
After the prologue, the perspective of the novel shifts between Vee Sedge; her son, Donald; and Noel. We learn that Vee has trouble keeping her temper; her mouth gets her in trouble with employers and neighbors alike. Donald is lazy and selfish and extraordinarily “lucky”: a heart murmur has kept him off the military rolls. Neither of them were planning to take in an evacuee. Vee takes the plunge when she decides that silent, limping, jug-earred Noel will be perfect for inspiring sympathy in others and his ration book will help her feed her family.
None of these people are villains. They just have a flexible attitude to crime. Vee comes up with a scheme to collect for fake charities to pay for rent and food after she and Donald lose their jobs. Donald starts a scheme where he fails medical physicals for draftees in exchange for money.
What I enjoyed most about Crooked Heart was the way the characters navigate morality and ethics. Vee and Noel have no problem tricking people out of shillings and pence, but Noel wants to see right done after he and Vee witness an warden robbing houses during an air raid. Vee was willing to leave the warden alone until he threatened Noel. By the end of the book, it’s clear that everyone has a bit of a hero in them, even if their white knight gear is a little tarnished.