Whistling In The Dark is set in a suburb of Liverpool, England during the period from the fall of 1940 to the spring of 1941. It follows a small community of neighbours as they struggle to cope with the nighttime bombing of the docks of Liverpool, the rationing of food and goods and the appearance of a mysterious stranger.
Liverpool was a major port located on the northwest coast of England, where the River Mersey meets the Irish Sea. With its strategic location, docks which were used by the Royal Navy and the many industries, Liverpool was recognized as a key port by Hitler. As a result the city became the second most bombed after London, during the Blitz, suffering many casualities. The first bombing raid occurred in August of 1940, and continued throughout the autumn of 1940.
Joan Armitage lives in a suburb of Liverpool with her mom, her seventeen-year-old sister Audrey, her brother Brian and a younger sister Judy. Joan's father, who was a wireless operator on an oil tanker in the Merchant Navy was lost at sea. Audrey's beau, Dai Davies is also serving in the Merchant Navy helping bring food and supplies to England. Audrey worries about Dai and each short leave he's granted is time for them to quickly see one another. Many families have lost a father or a brother so they understand the fear.
As Joan is working on her french homework one evening in the sitting room she hears a faint low whistle and then sees "the dark shape of a man looking in at her." Terrified, Joan opens the door to see Brian arriving home on his bike from grammar school. They immediately lock the back door and when Mum arrives home, she and Brian search the garden and surrounding bushes without luck.
At school the next day, Miss Sanderson introduces a new girl, Ania who is Polish. To prevent Angela and her friends from bullying Ania, Joan's best friend Doreen makes a point of talking to Ania during the mid-morning break. Doreen tells Joan that Ania is an orphan who came to England on the Kindertransport and now lives with the elderly Mrs. Mellor.
Besides school, Joan goes to the teenage hops at the youth club and to the cinema, usually the Queensway Cinema to see American movies. These movies offer her "a glimpse of heaven compared with the chilly reality of the blackout and endless queues for the meager family meat ration..." She also does youth-service work with Ross Jenks and Derek Williams, collecting salvage for the war effort. One afternoon on their way to look for salvage they decide to stop at the old Royal Hotel which is now used to house evacuee children from the risky areas of Liverpool. The hotel is run by volunteers from the Women's Voluntary Services (WVS). A few of the children tell Joan and the boys that they believe the hotel is haunted because they hear footsteps at night and strange noises coming from the attic.
When Joan returns hope she finds Captain Ronnie Harper Jones, who is stationed with the Army Catering Corps paying her mother a visit. Although Joan doesn't like Ronnie who she thinks is "on the oily side", she does like the parcels of food he brings for them. Joan's mother insists that she attend the charity dinner dance in aid of the Red Cross at the golf club; Ronnie is taking her mother, which does not make Joan happy. Both Audrey and Brian also don't like Ronnie. Before Ronnie leaves, two army men arrive to question Mrs. Armitage about whether they've seen anyone suspicious lurking around. They inform the family that a Polish refugee with the Pioneer Corps has deserted. Although she remembers the earlier siting of the man around their home, Mrs. Armitage lies to the army men, later telling Joan that she doesn't know the circumstances and if the stranger is the Polish man she wants him to have a chance to get away as incarceration in the Military Prison is terrible.
As the Blitz in Liverpool intensifies, Joan finds the frightening bombing raids to be one of many situations to be overcome. The annoying visits of Captain Harper Jones lead to an upsetting decision by Joan's mother. The discovery by Derek and Ross of a hidden cache of blackmarket foodstuffs result in a serious accident and the uncovering of a local blackmarket ring that brings down a highly respected resident. Added to this is the reappearance of the mysterious stranger whose presence complicates life for Joan and her family.
Whistling in the Dark paints a realistic picture of life in Liverpool during the Blitz of 1940-1941. Author Shirley Hughes draws on her own personal experience of having lived through the Liverpool Blitz when she was a teenager.
Narrated by Joan Armitage, the first part of the novel develops the setting, providing young readers with a sense of life during wartime. In many ways life went on during the war; Joan and her friends go to movies at the theatre, attend dances and she continues to take art lessons. Her sister Audrey has a boyfriend in the Merchant Navy and her mother is being courted by a much disliked Captain Harper Jones. But Joan's narrative mentions the many ways life in Liverpool changed during the war: the blackout curtains, the shortage of nylons leading women to paint their legs with gravy browning, children scavenging for metal and other scraps for the war effort, the rationing of coal and food especially meat and sugar. Hughes particularly focuses on the children being hungry; "...they were aching with hunger." and how when visiting each others homes, they refused food because "in this era of food rationing, it wasn't polite to accept food." And of course the bombing raids which overshadow all aspects of life.
One especially memorable scene in the novel in which the terror of the bombing raids is captured occurs when Joan and Doreen go to the cinema to see a Betty Grable movie. In the theatre, they hear "the heart-sinking wail of the air-raid siren outside". Instead of enjoying the film, Joan finds she can't concentrate, "Her ears, like everyone else's were straining to catch the sound of those engines getting nearer: German Focke-Wulf bombers on their way to drop their nightly barrage of high explosives to pound the Liverpool docks." They must remain in the theatre, the power goes out frequently leaving them in total darkness, flakes of plaster occasionally falling from the ceiling as they heard "the distant sickening crunch and thud of explosions over Liverpool..." And afterwards when the all clear has sounded and Joan and Doreen along with others leave the theatre, "...the sky over Liverpool was blazing orange and fiery red."
Using the character of Ania, Hughes also explores the plight of Jewish children sent to England via the Kindertransport. Ania arrives in Liverpool completely alone and is eventually befriended by Joan and her family. Readers also see the attitude that existed towards deserters like Ania's uncle, Likasz Topolski, who has deserted only because he wants to meet his neice.
Within the novel however is a more courageous story - that of the role of the Merchant Navy in bringing in food and supplies to Great Britain at tremendous risk. This risk meant that everyone was careful not to waste and that many necessities were done without. It was a risk Joan and her family knew well as her father had been lost at sea and it was a risk Audrey lived with daily regarding her boyfriend Dai.
Hughes packs a ton of action into the latter half of the novel; Ania's story is developed, the identity of the mysterious stranger revealed, the discovery of a black mark cache and numerous plot twists that make for an exciting and satisfying ending. Whistling In The Dark covers many aspects of wartime England in an informative and engaging way for younger readers.
For further information on Liverpool during the Blitz:
The Imperial War Museums website has substantial information on the Liverpool Blitz.
The Merseyside Maritime Museum website.
Whistling In The Dark by Shirley Hughes
Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press 2015