The Whalebone Theatre is a coming of age novel set in the decades before and during WWII. The main focus is on the three Seagrave half siblings, especially the eldest Cristabel Seagrave. More than a “growing up and learning” kind of story though, The Whalebone Theatre is about misfits and about the saving grace of art.
Cristabel Seagrave was born to lead but finds herself often frustrated. The Seagraves are a propertied family with a seaside estate called Chilcombe, but of course, women don’t take over family estates, male heirs do. When we meet 4-year-old Crista, she is waiting with the servants for her father to bring home his new bride. Crista’s mother died in childbirth and Jasper Seagrave, despite his sorrow, moves onward and does his duty, only to have a second daughter (Flossie). Jasper’s younger brother Willoughby will sire the heir to Chilcombe — Digby Seagrave – and all three children will grow up together in a somewhat unusual household. Crista, from the time she is very small, has a great desire for adventure and to lead. She loves stories, puppets and her wooden sword. Flossie and Digby adore her and will follow her everywhere, and since very little attention is paid them by their parents or other adult figures at Chilcombe, their devotion to each other and their plays get them through childhood. When a dead whale washes up on the beach, Crista rises bright and early to stake her claim to it. The whale and Chilcombe eventually draw the attention of some unusual traveling artists, and Rosalind Seagrave (Crista’s stepmother, Flossie and Digby’s mother) is delighted to have such esteemed society. Chilcombe becomes a party center, with adults drinking, dancing and carrying on all hours of the day and night. But the Russian emigre artist Taras, who has a brood of children and several women in his entourage, takes a special interest in Crista and her dreams of producing plays. Thus the Whalebone Theatre is born with 12 year old Crista as its director, Digby as its star, and the various adults as supporting players.
As the children grow up, school and war will cause separations, and the Seagraves will have to figure out what they desire for their futures, what they individually are meant to do. Childhood dreams will be put aside and adult problems will have to be faced. For Digby, this means fighting in the war and experiencing the evacuation at Dunkirk, but also making a decision to challenge himself and put himself in harm’s way by joining the SOE (Special Operations Executive) — the secret spying organization that drops agents into France for reconnaissance and espionage. Their missions are dangerous and frequently result in the death of agents. Crista, ever the woman of action, cannot stand being at home while Digby fights, and so she joins the WAAF and eventually also is recruited to SOE. Flossie, always the less adventurous/more nervous sibling who also lacks self esteem, finds herself running Chilcombe, overseeing crop planting and hosting German POWs. Each character through their service and through their artistic ability — as a director with a vision, as an actor making choices, as a musician connecting with the local population — will have to make critical decisions for their own future, decisions that might separate them from the people they love.
The action in this novel is thrilling, whether it’s the children engaging in their own acts of espionage at home or agents running for their lives behind enemy lines. Author Joanna Quinn brings in the arts, especially plays like “The Tempest” and “Antigone”, at crucial parts of the story in a way that supports her plot and character development. I love the supporting characters in this novel: the Russian Taras and his son Leon, Willoughby’s pal/British commander Perry, Myrtle the American poet. All of them show the children and the reader the various facets of adulthood — what it means to be an artist and how an artist works, what it means to serve and how to plan ahead for the future. It is the question of the future that dogs Crista. As a woman who wants to lead, to run things, to be in charge, she finds herself in situations where that is simply not welcome. Her role is circumscribed, and she clings to her childhood dreams without really thinking how they translate into an adult life. Her frustrations are understandable and her transformation at the end is hard won. Given that this is a novel about war, that it is set in England and in war ravaged France, there is considerable heart ache, but Quinn also provides some wonderful factual information about life on the Homefront and about the Resistance.
The Whalebone Theatre is a fine piece of historical fiction and would appeal to those interested in the interwar period, WWII, and the performing arts.