Relatable characters, Caitlyn Wickham
Enemy At The Gate
15 December, 2020
“Being in quarantine sounds like being in prison,” I said, shivering. Lily nodded. “A bit like that. Except that the prison is your own home.”
Philippa Werry’s Enemy at the Gate describes a world where children are stuck at home for weeks on end, with an invisible enemy taking down those around them. The great unknown of what is to come causes panic throughout the country. It sounds familiar as we all remember the anxiety-inducing lockdown we experienced earlier this year. But we had the advantage of scientists from around the world developing a vaccine and researching the virus to find the information needed to effectively stop the spread.
80 years ago very little was known about viruses in general and scientific equipment was far less developed. So when Tom’s little sister Flo contracts polio, his life is flipped upside down. Will it ever be the same again?
12 year old Tom is one of five kids in a Wellington family. He goes to the local school and has a teacher he doesn’t like, he has a best mate Charlie and gets annoyed by his siblings. He dreams of running in the Olympics like his hero Jack Lovelock. But when infantile paralysis starts spreading throughout the country all of these things that were constants in Tom’s life start to go away one by one until he finds himself lost and alone. When the epidemic hits, he fears losing those he loves and starts to repeat their names each night in the hopes it will keep them safe.
“I started going through a sort of routine, every night before I went to sleep. … I had to say the names of everyone in our family, five times over in my head. … It took a long time, and sometimes I was half asleep and I lost count and had to start all over again from the beginning. But I had to do it, because what if I missed one out and that person got sick? It would be all my fault. I had to surround our family with protection.”
At first, Tom takes the small but important relationships in his life for granted, he doesn’t spend time with Johnny or Jessie his younger siblings and always complains about the jobs his Mum gives him. But when Flo gets sick, he realises that these little but important things help him get through as he has some consistency during a time of constant change. By the end of the book, Tom is a more compassionate person who has re-evaluated what is important to him during a time when he could have turned away from what mattered most.
Tom’s older sister Lily shows the societal expectations and pressures put on young women to fulfil these roles. Lily dreams of being a pilot like Jean Batten and Amelia Earhart but as a woman, she is expected to spend her time in the home, cooking, cleaning and looking after the children. Lily battles with these expectations throughout the book. I found this confrontation of the reality of women’s lives not that long ago quite frustrating as I often take for granted the liberties and freedoms I have in my life today. Basic things like knowing I will get a full high school education or go to university were rare occurrences in Lily’s time.
When Flo gets sick Lily is left to look after the children. “Mum wrote out shopping lists for Lily, and left plenty of instructions. ‘Lily, you’ll need to scald all the crockery and cutlery in boiling water, and wash all Flo’s bed linen in disinfectant. And you’d better wash all the floors and walls, too.’ Lily worked non-stop. If she wasn’t doing housework, she was cooking, or looking after Jessie.”
Philippa Werry uses historical events and gives them stories that we can relate to, to gain a better understanding of what life was like during these times. Another historical novel that has a similar effect on the reader is Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief which gives a detailed account of life in Germany during World War II through the eyes of a young girl.
Overall, this book gives a really interesting social commentary of the country at the time and the effect an epidemic had on the country as a whole. We can draw parallels to our lives, especially in this year we’ve had, but also see major differences such as the roles of men and women in society as well as the way the country dealt with the epidemic. Although the beginning of the book was a little slow, once I got a few chapters in I began to be invested in the characters and their lives and couldn’t put it down after that. I would recommend this book to a wide variety of readers as it is an easy read, with relatable characters and an interesting plot.
- Caitlyn Wickham is 16 and attends St Margaret’s College