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The Bakehouse, Joy Cowley

September 22, 2015

the bakehouse

I don’t know how Joy Cowley churns them out at such a rate and keeps the quality of her writing so high, but there you go;  We have another great read from Joy Cowley: The Bakehouse (2015).

You can read the first chapter online at Booknotes Unbound:

The Bakehouse has received some good reviews:

These reviews pick out many of the themes I would highlight – life in New Zealand during (WWII) wartime; how this conflict was experienced at home (rations, fear of invasion, accusations of cowardice, loss of loved ones far from home, changes in social behaviour, the presence of foreign troups etc); issues of morality; the role of women at that time; the experience of family during wartime.

Elderly characters in children’s fiction

I think another point worth noting is how the book invites us to consider New Zealand’s ‘elderly’ (and their relationship with adolescents/adolescence). This is largely done by the frame of the story (an elderly man is asked to recall his life as a child during WWII). Interestingly, to me at least, while an elderly man is critical to the telling of this tale of war on the homefront, his presence is kept at a distance; he is recalling his youth (a youth bare of other elderly). It seems to me that this reflects the relationship between elderly and adolescents in modern NZ – they are kept largely separate. That said, our relationship with the two world wars of the twentieth century is mediated through story and our elderly have a privileged place in the telling of war stories because they are able to ‘bear witness’. In this way, with regards to WWI and WWII, in recent years, the ‘elderly’ have become important protagonists of a story that we use to elucidate national identitybut it is often their youth that we discuss, more than their current age. What of the elderly as people in their own right, with current life experiences and current interests? Where are those characters in modern children’s and YA fiction? I could understand them being secondary characters, given the expectation that protagonists of YA fiction be youths… nevertheless. Also… it is common to talk about how war changed the lives of women and the shapes of families, but how did it change relationships between the ages? How did WWI and WWII affect our impression of what it is to be elderly – then and now?
Anyway, some points to read over in this regard; Consider the first page, in which the elderly Bert observes “A tall skinny boy” “snooping around the grounds of the retirement village. …One of that gang, he thought, louts with spray cans thinking the elderly are an easy target. Need a good boot up the backside, the lot of them.” (p.9)
“everything happens in a war, but children don’t understand what’s going on. War is the adult world and kids just have to accept it.” (p.17)
“Viewed from a distance of seventy-plus years, 1943 was history soup, everything mixed up, and it was difficult to separate reality from what he had read or been told. One event, though, was crystal clear and refused to be forgotten. He’d never talked about it to the others, not Meg and certainly not Betty, but he didn’t want to be buried with the truth. Someone should know what happened that winter day.” (pp.19-20)


Ethical questions are raised throughout the text.

How important is it to do what is forbidden to you as a child? How do children mature in the face of restrictions (ethical, physical and otherwise)? Consider: “there didn’t seem much point in going back inside the bakery, but they did. Many times. Why? Because it was forbidden, because it was their secret….” (p.26)

A ‘deserter’ from the army is key to this story, but we are not invited to think of him as a coward, in keeping with the attitudes of the times; “he wasn’t really a deserter, not someone deliberately betraying his country. He’d got scared, that was all. He’d made a mistake and now there was no going back.” (p.57) I’m not sure how anachronistic it is to have a child think like this during World War II… I don’t know how many people truly thought like this in the face of public sentiment?!

Theft is an ongoing feature, but theft of what, from whom, for whom, by whom etc – this is problematic. Consider Bert’s father reacting to theft and placing it in the ethical context of ‘the ultimate sacrifice’ (pp.62-63)


This text also serves as an expose on gender experiences of the time. At times, this felt less a part of the story and more a determination to provide context, but it is still really interesting.

NB for example: “There were no men teachers at the school. They were all away, fighting to win the war.” (p.29) Bert’s mother’s anti-war stance did feel a bit contrived to me, but it is a gendered stance as well (see also pp.36-37)

Bert’s father’s presence at home is explained, but it does tug on his sense of masculinity (p.63).

Or consider the aunt’s behaviour and Burt’s father’s reaction to it.

Consider also that the aunt’s friend gets pregnant out of wedlock and has to deal with this according to the expectations of the time (e.g. p.88, p.97). This connects with Bert’s concerns for his sister and her interest in the deserter (p.84, for example). It also sets the scene for Burt revealing Donald’s presence to army men (p.131) – what might be seen as an act of betrayal is also an act of protection. What ethics are at play here?! [SPOILER] It isn’t a decision with a neat ending either – his sister does marry Donald and he doesn’t live long as a result of being interred (chapter nineteen). The ethics of Bert’s decision are not neat or clearcut.


“The war was always there, like a big hungry ghost that poured itself out of the radio to haunt the house.” (p.113)

The war is always there, changing things and shaping events, but in what ways is the war more than social backdrop in this novel? In what ways is war actually shaping the story?

And what purpose is served by having Bert and Erueti discuss war at the end of the novel, as an elderly man? (“Bert wanted to say, “Who says it’s brutal?” and “You think war isn’t atrocity?” But the boy had a sweet face, and there was something about him that made Bert feel he was looking into an old mirror. …Now he was feeling very, very tired. Some words rose out of nowhere and tumbled out of his mouth. “It doesn’t matter what side you are on, lad, everyone killed in a war is someone’s child.”” (p.137))

Why close the parenthetic narrative like this?! What does the ending say about the meaning/ the experience of war? (and what does it say about connections between the experiences of elderly and youth?)

Teaching Notes

Gecko Press provide some interesting teaching notes:

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