The Scarecrows by Robert Westall

1981 HB, art by Gavin Rowe

Six years after the death of his father, 13-year-old Simon Wood (“Awkward age”, as one character puts it) learns his mother is to remarry. Simon pretty much worships his father, a major in the army who was killed in Aden in circumstances that hint he may have been acting a little more imperialistically than he should have. His mother’s new man, Joe Moreton, is his father’s opposite: “pacifist, ban-the-bomb”, an artist no less (a newspaper cartoonist and painter), a man who rose to success from a working class background, with the result that he has, to Simon’s mind, “too much money and no sense of how things were done”. Simon — who comes across as a bit of a snob, for instance in the way he’s ashamed of his school’s plastic guttering — finds him “animal and yobbish”.

Worse, Simon learns what’s going on not from his mother, but through an overheard conversation at the art gallery where she works. They’re having a show of Joe Moreton’s paintings and cartoons, and Simon, bored, drinks a few complimentary glasses of wine before hiding away behind some decorations. From there, he hears a couple of snide, gossipy patrons talking about Joe Moreton and “the brigadier’s daughter”. “Hot little lady, that one,” one says, before Simon realises they’re talking about his mother. I love how Westall describes the moment Simon is found and confronts his mother and Joe:

“Then suddenly, without a thing being said, everybody knew that everybody knew.”

PB, art by Alun Hood

The next thing, Simon’s mother is informing him they’re selling the family home in Croydon and she and Simon’s young sister Jane are moving up to Joe’s house in the village of Gorsley in Cheshire. Simon at first refuses to go with them. He’s a boarder at a private school, and is going to spend some of his holidays at an army camp. But when that’s finished, he relents and hitchhikes up to join them. (So we now have drinking alcohol and hitchhiking unaccompanied, both at age 13. There’s worse to come.) But he takes one look at how close his mother, sister, and Joe have already become — loving and playful, warm and far more domestic than his own father ever was — and just has to run away from it. Taking refuge in an abandoned mill in the next field, he spins a fantasy around three old coats hanging on the wall, of:

“…a mum who stayed home and was always there when you needed her; a father around who you could help and ask questions.”

But when he finds a starving cat and her kittens near the mill, he goes back to his mother so they can help the kittens. He can show a fierce, almost angry protectiveness for this helpless animal family, but can’t show affection for his own human one. He agrees to move in with his mother, sister, and step-father, but is constantly finding himself driven to destructive attacks against Joe and his mother. (As he owns his father’s army kit — his most precious possession — he at one point ends up with a loaded revolver. At age 13.) And this is where the supernatural starts to find its way in.

Puffin PB

Simon sees three scarecrows in the field by the old mill. They weren’t there before. He feels there’s something familiar about them, and finds himself constantly watching them. When he finally connects them with a story he’s heard about the mill — a love-triangle that turned murderous — and connects that with how he feels about his mother and her new husband, he starts to grow afraid. And each day, the scarecrows get closer. Even if Simon knocks them down, the next day they’re up on their stilts again, heading for him.

Simon obviously has “issues”. He has sudden, uncontrollable bursts of anger he calls his “devils”. The only emotion he’s been taught to process is fear, and that by his father, whose advice was to turn towards what you fear and deal with it in the most confrontational way — which may be what finished him off. This is why Simon’s grief for his father is so unacknowledged and unprocessed, until it becomes so strong it can only be dealt with as anger. And how does he deal with the many complex emotions brought up by his mother’s remarriage? Anger. And one of the first things we learn about Simon is that his anger, his “devils”, have left him “very frightened of himself”. So, if his only way of processing fear is through anger, and that anger makes him afraid of himself, it’s no wonder he’s messed up.

The scarecrows, seemingly driven to relive a past event through Simon’s pent-up emotion (a situation that recalls Alan Garner’s Owl Service and Penelope Lively’s Astercote) are themselves things of unresolved, frustrated anger:

“They had lived on their own hate for thirty years, and it was a thin, bitter, unsatisfying thing.”

US cover

Reading The Scarecrows is like being jostled between Simon’s increasingly unpleasant outbursts (calling his mother a whore, waving a loaded revolver) and how poorly he is dealt with by his mother and step-father. It’s evident nobody has helped him process the death of his father — he has been stuck away in a private school most of the time, with fellow pupils as likely to bully him as befriend him. While his sister has had plenty of time to get to know Joe Moreton as a person, and so love him as a stepfather, it’s a done deal by the time Simon gets to know him. And while his mother, thanks to Joe, is only now learning how unloving her first husband was, how self-destructive and ultimately afraid of the human part of life — “afraid of going grey, getting old, coming home every night and letting the kids jump all over him while he was watching the telly” — she doesn’t give any thought to how having such a father must have affected Simon, how it must have taught him all the wrong ideas about what it was to be a man. “I never knew what love was, till I met you,” she tells Joe, but doesn’t seem capable of passing the lesson on to her much-in-need-of-it son. It’s a situation of emotional blindness in one generation inculcating it in the next, and so perpetuating the misery.

The Scarecrows was first published in 1981, and won the Carnegie Medal (making Westall the first person to win it twice). Published for the first time today, I think any review would likely bring up the term “toxic masculinity”. For here we get a look at its origins in the ways some families deal — or don’t — with that “awkward age”, and with such supposedly un-masculine emotions as grief and vulnerability. Troubled boys, forced to act like little soldiers, become hounded by devils, and end up acting like them.

Penguin 2016 cover

The Scarecrows doesn’t spell this out, but leaves it to the reader to judge both Simon and his situation, which seems to be another characteristic of the more powerful YA novels of that era — an often unflinching harshness of material, dealt with in a very matter-of-fact style, and no explicit authorial judgement. In this way it reminds me of Alan Garner’s Red Shift and William Rayner’s Stag Boy. But also of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, proving it’s not just a thing of that era, after all.

I didn’t feel The Scarecrows had quite the cathartic resolution it needed — I’ve no sense that anything is definitely going to change for Simon, though it’s certainly not as bleak as Garner’s Red Shift — but it’s a powerful novel all the same, and certainly makes me want to read more from Westall.

Comments (3)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    ‘The Scarecrows’ was the first Westall novel I read. That was a long time ago! (I think I read it the year it won the Carnegie) so my memories of it are pretty vague. Oddly enough, it’s Westall’s characterisation rather than the supernatural dimension that I remember: the mc’s dad (the gun fetish, the fear of growing old), Moreton sketching the mc’s headmaster – a cartoon as cruel as it is accurate – rather than the story’s resolution. ‘The Wind Eye’ sticks in my mind for similar reasons.

    ‘….which seems to be another characteristic of the more powerful YA novels of that era — an often unflinching harshness of material, dealt with in a very matter-of-fact style, and no explicit authorial judgement.’

    I was really struck by this reading Peter Dickinson’s ‘The Devil’s Children’ a few months ago (the first in the ‘Changes’ trilogy). Another example – albeit a good deal older – is ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’; a book that’s been around for so long we’ve become largely oblivious to how violent it actually is.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    I read this book because you mentioned it, so thanks for that. I certainly want to read more by him.

    And that’s an interesting point about the violence in The Lion, the Witch…. I’d certainly never thought of it as a violent book, though of course it’s got a full-on battle in it! It was written quite close to WWII, I suppose, but it feels like The Scarecrows, written so much later, was also haunted by the same war. In fact a lot of the 70s was.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I was thinking exactly the same thing. the prevalence of war comics, for example. In fairness, the mid-Seventies was only twenty years after the end of WWII. The war is a background presence in a lot of YA books from that era – Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dawn of Fear’, ‘Elidor’ with its bombed out buildings, plus Westall’s ‘The Machine Gunners’ which actually draws on his wartime memories.

    But it’s interesting to see – as you say – how an event like that also colours people’s attitude towards violence in numerous, subtle ways.

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