The shelves are already crowded with literary orphans, cramming in everyone from Harry Potter and Mowgli, to Huck Finn and Anne Shirley, Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre. But even among literature’s lovable urchins, Noel Bostock is a bit of an odd duck. He was raised by a suffragette, not wolves. He’s not cute or plucky and he doesn’t sing a note. He has jug ears; a bad leg, thanks to polio; and an outsize vocabulary, thanks to his godmother Mattie.
He’s also entirely endearing in Lissa Evans’s novel, Crooked Heart, which gets my vote for the most purely charming read of the summer. As war descends on England, Noel becomes the mystery-reading mastermind of one of the least hardened con-artist duos since “Paper Moon.” (One of Noel’s schemes also includes taking time to return an overdue Ellery Queen to the Kentish Town library.)
Let the record show that “Crooked Heart” makes a solid case for a suffragette godmother over a fairy godmother. Mattie is wholly lovely – stalwart, eccentric, the kind of guardian every bookish child wishes would take him in. She’s full of brisk sayings, such as “Hobbies are for people who don’t read books.” But Mattie, who earned a Ph.D. at a time when most women didn’t go to college (her thesis was on Thomas Fuller and the origins of wit), is "losing words." “The box of things for making flames/ I can’t recall their bloody names,” she rhymes, joking in the face of senile dementia.
Noel takes over the cooking and puts helpful labels on everything, but it becomes clear that won’t be enough. “That was the first time he really felt afraid; soon, he began to carry the feeling around with him, a cold scarf wrapped around his neck, a stomach full of tadpoles.”
This particular reader started turning pages of the prologue slower, unwilling to face what’s clearly coming. After the worst, Noel gets handed off to the stultifying home of his "Uncle" Geoffrey and "Aunt" Margery.
When the children are evacuated from London during the Blitz, Noel finds himself limping from house to house as all the other, more athletic or adorable boys and girls are taken in first. He ends up in the care of Vera Sedge, a 36-year-old widow who hasn’t so much fallen on hard times as sunk waist-deep in them. “[S]he seemed more like a pigeon, drab and directionless, pecking at anything that looked as if it might be edible.”
Vee is the kind of woman whose bread always lands butter-side down: She takes out a life-insurance policy on a failing elderly neighbor (legal at the time), and the woman’s health suddenly improves.
While others are filtering government-dyed petroleum to sell to civilians, raiding homes during blackouts for jewelry and silver spoons, or doing a brisk business on the black market, Vee gives her grown son her egg and cheese ration and tries to keep her mother in ink and violet creams by doing piecework for a hatmaker.
Her mother spends her time writing letters to the prime minister. Meanwhile, Vee’s son, Donald, has turned a heart murmur into a lucrative business for people who would just as soon skip that whole draft thing. (While happy to eat his mom's egg and cheese, he doesn't feel the need to reciprocate by contributing to the rent.) It seems as if everyone is making more money off the war than Vera. (At one point, she assigns Noel an essay: “Who Profits Most from the War? Nazis or Shopkeepers? Discuss.”)
Mattie has taught Noel her disdain for authority, so he and Vee team up, going door to door to collect for widows and orphans. (It is, in a certain sense, accurate, if not ethical.)
As with all Vee’s schemes, complications ensue. And when Donald’s 4-F business inevitably goes pear-shaped, the repercussions threaten to engulf his mother and Noel, unless they can come up with a new plan.
“ ‘It’s not…’ she picked a careful path through the words. ‘It’s not the sort of plan that you’d want to end up explaining in court.’ ”
“You mean it’s legally wrong but morally right?” Noel asks her eagerly.
The novel’s heart may be crooked, but it is completely in the right place. And if wanting a happy ending for this offbeat pair is wrong, I can’t imagine a reader on earth who would want to be right.