Wednesday, 28 September 2016

'Opal Plumstead' by Jacqueline Wilson

As part of my ongoing, and slow progress, mission to read every single novel about the UK fight for women's suffrage, I recently found myself reading Jacqueline Wilson's 100th novel - Opal Plumstead, published in 2014. 

I'd read a few Jacqueline Wilson books before (Tracy Beaker, The Illustrated Mum) out of curiosity for this writer who is so loved by young readers, and who I once had the pleasure of interviewing in the dingy basement of a Nottingham branch of Waterstones about 20 years ago. I can assure you that I, like everyone else who has ever met her, found Jacqueline Wilson to be an utter delight. 

So I was fascinated to see what she would do with a historical novel about the suffrage era. Having read several children's books on this topic, I am always slightly disappointed that every single one of them uses the tired trope of a down-on-her-luck working-class girl befriending a militant middle-class lady, immediately meeting Emmeline Pankhurst, being thrown into prison and experiencing force feeding, and then falling in love with a kind young man at the end. Every single one of them. Argh!

Thank goodness that Jacqueline Wilson broke that trend, and for that alone I applaud her. It's true, our heroine Opal is a working-class girl who is down on her luck. She is a bright 14-year-old with a scholarship to a good school, and a very bright brain. But when her father is imprisoned for a stupid mistake, her already impoverished family are left fending for themselves and Opal is sent to work at the local sweet factory. Here she indeed is befriended by a middle-class militant suffragette who teaches Opal the ways of the vote (and she does meet Emmeline Pankhurst at her first suffragette meeting)... but this is where the similarities to all the other stories ends. 

Opal Plumstead is truly a story about Opal Plumstead, not about suffrage or militancy or force feeding. Opal is a young girl growing up on the eve of world war one and in a society divided about whether women should have the vote or not, and these two factors unavoidably infuse her story. But they are not central to it. Instead, Opal Plumstead is a historical children's novel about being a girl in the mid 1910s.

In many ways, the character of Opal reminded me of Roald Dahl's mighty Matilda - both are intelligent young women who are exasperated by their silly, useless families but who instead go on to achieve good things with the help of women outside of the home. 

Opal's family infuriated me. Her selfish, mean, cruel mother; her vain, indulgent and spoilt big sister Cassie (who I grew to adore by the end of the book); and her ineffectual and pathetic father. In comparison, Opal's intelligence and goodness seem somewhat sickly and overbearing. And she is a rather hard protagonist to truly like. Opal is self-pitying and a bit sulky, but then again she's a 14-year-old girl who's having a shit time. Why should we expect her to behave like a grown-up when she isn't one?

At 520 pages, Opal Plumstead gives Harry Potter a run for his money in the hefty kids' book stakes, but like all of Jacqueline Wilson's books, it's a quick and easy read (even more so if you're an adult reader!). And ultimately, it is so important to keep reminding young people about the relatively recent history of the suffrage movement that if a popular writer like Jacqueline Wilson can help keep this movement alive for future generations then I'm all for it. 

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