I feel like a lot has been said about Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, but it is the inspiration for a thought that won’t take very long to explain. How I Live Now, which I thoroughly enjoyed but which I wouldn’t quite call a dystopia because of the lack of any discernible malevolent governing force, begins as a summer/back to school book in many ways. Daisy, our MC who’s real name is Elisabeth, voyages across the big blue pond from New York to live in rural England because of an… unpleasant family situation (an expecting evil step-mother and spineless father). Perhaps a little cliché, but I enjoyed the POV so much, Daisy’s voice is so unique and in that way so authenticly concerned with all things DAISY, in her own little teen world. This is only slightly undercut by the fact that the story is retrospectively told, and presumably by a much older Daisy while it sounds more like a very close retelling.
Anywhoooo, back to the “back to school”. I suppose I should explain my terms here, because I am not really being official at all and just using my own definition. For me, a “back to school book” or a summer read is a story that takes place through the summer and either incorporates or ends on a return the school setting (often a new school setting). Daisy has moved, it is early summer and she’s going to live with her Aunt (deceased mother’s sister) and her gang of children – that is pretty much the definition of a summer/back-to-school story for me. We have Daisy dealing with an eating disorder in her own way, we have her joining a new family and falling in love (lots of kinds of love, which she realizes she was very deprived of in New York), and though she has a very firm voice and sense of opinion and self, we still have her struggling to really find herself as lovable and unique.
Ever so subtly, Rosoff plants little nuggets that show the reader that this world isn’t exactly like our own, Daisy’s world is in a very heated second cold war. Still, because Daisy has really changed her entire life we learn about how she lives on the farm with her cousins and animals: dogs, goats, cows and chickens. The eldest cousin, Osbert, is barely seen in the action of the book, it feels as though he is just too old to really belong in the world that the younger teens and children have created. Edmond, a year younger than Daisy is the love interest, he drives, he smokes and he is charming. Piper, the little girl, is like the mother hen and immediately takes to Daisy. Isaac is the youngest of them all and very often silent, though Daisy is often remarking at how the whole clan of them has this strange way of being able to read thoughts and communicate through their minds. There is talk of school, the younger cousins are home-schooled while Osbert and Daisy will go to an actual school. Daisy doesn’t really take the time to be too trepidatious about school, instead she is consumed by her lust for Edmond and the beautiful life living in the freedom of the country and the imaginings of her cousins.
When the war really does break out it takes a while for the kids to really notice. It isn’t until the world of adults invades their own peaceful life that they first realize that world is unstable and that things really go wrong for them. The cousins are split up (Daisy still communicates with Edmond each night, in a telepathic sort of way that could also simply be called coping). Daisy and Piper are sent one way, and the younger boys go another while Osbert, very consumed by global events, joins the English resistance/military.
The book is a really close look at the effects of war on children. How horrible and unfeeling war and people in the midst of war are – all the children want is to return to the way they were living, they just want to reunite and be happy together but the adults, and adult affairs and adult war won’t allow that to happen. I think, part of the reason I really enjoyed this book is because it didn’t end up in school. I quite like the opposition of the child mind with the adult one, and I loved the freedom that the children have throughout. They simply act, and generally, it’s for love.
Of course, on one hand the story is tragic and life is changed forever, but on the other hand going to school seems so inane after reading Daisy’s ordeals. She learned more about herself and about the world than she ever could have in a classroom. Yet, I think that, perhaps, the war can be seen as an alternative classroom. They are both very adult ruled worlds, they can both be quite cruel to children and split them up, while war inadvertently destroys their hopeful imaginations the schoolroom works to curb that kind of creativity and harness it. All in all, I’d say that Daisy attends the school of hard knocks, the learns much in her happy times at the farm and even more through the war. The end lesson, after Daisy is brought back to New York and put in a mental institution, is that the world of adults has no place for childishness and that is simply unacceptable to Daisy who returns to England as soon as possible and begins the healing process, alongside her cousins, recovering their hopefulness.