Dear diary: Patricia Murphy on hooking kids into history with a fictional diary
From Anne Frank to Malala, Zlata and Marah, children’s diaries and blogs bring home the reality of war and have inspired fiction too, including mine on 1916 and 1921
War diaries record things that most children shouldn’t see. But by bearing witness, either as fiction or true account, the diary is a small victory against writing children’s voices out of history
When I began writing about the 1916 Rising through the eyes of a child, the diary format felt a natural fit. Dublin was crammed with writers in 1916, famous and obscure, dashing down their experiences as bullets whizzed around. It wasn’t too much of a leap to imagine a child trying to make sense of it all, pen in hand, in the midst of heroism and hell. Once I had Molly’s voice – gossipy, confidential, truthful – it was a matter of setting the plot in motion. But there were other payoffs – children’s familiarity with the form, contemporary resonances in an era of blogging and the wealth of primary resources from 1916.
What with the Wimpy Kid, Tom Gates and Confessions of Georgia Nicholson jostling each other on the bookshelves, the diary is a familiar and friendly narrative device. Boys and girls of all ages relate to tales of anti-heroes in digestible, bite-sized chunks. So even with more challenging content, they are reassured by a chatty, friendly voice.
Kids often keep diaries or write a blog. I recently discovered my seven-year-old’s “secret diary of being a mermaid” in her bottom drawer. She wasn’t amused when I admitted to peeking at it. But she was quite proud too and cottoned on quickly that once it’s written down, it’s out there – no longer private. It’s that sense of whispered secrets and revelation that is part of the diary’s enduring appeal.
Fictional diaries also benefit by association with the genuine article such as The Diary of Anne Frank, one of my favourite books as a child. Diaries have as much claim as journalism to be the first draft of history and can be more expressive. They don’t pretend to be authoritative or even accurate. But the intimacy of seeing events through someone else’s eyes while also being inside their head, takes us straight into life in “interesting times”.
Anne Frank was spurred on when she heard a radio broadcast in 1944 made by an exiled Dutch minister. He called for the preservation of “ordinary documents – a diary, letters ...” as testimony to the suffering of civilians during the Nazi occupation. But her diary was also her confidant and her consolation. And ours too. For who cannot love a girl who believed “in spite of everything. . . that people are really good at heart”.
Anne Frank’s legacy is an inspiration to other chroniclers. One of the most powerful accounts of living in Sarajevo through the Bosnian war was Zlata’s Diary, written over three years. Zlata began it when she was an 11-year-old with perfect grades. It ended with hiding in shelters as 330 shells a day smashed into the city. Unlike Anne Frank, Zlata’s diary became her ticket to freedom, first to Paris, then England and Ireland. She now lives in Dublin and works in documentary, a remarkable woman and advocate for children in conflict.
In an era of social media, the diary, re-versioned as a blog, has become a medium full of message. It is not just a personal lifeline but has transformed foreign reporting and world events.
“I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taleban ...” wrote Malala in her anonymous blog for the BBC at the age of 11 in 2009. After surviving a near fatal assassination attempt, and winning the Nobel Prize for Peace, Malala is now an icon, an activist for girl’s education and tolerance. But it all began with a blog.
Now voices are emerging from Syria, such as teenager Marah who writes from Damascus as her country falls apart.
“Today, spring is here again. But what kind of spring is this? We now wake up to the sound of falling bombs . . . Why were our childhoods stolen?”
It is heartbreaking to read how children yearn for bananas and candy. She writes about her drive to study about prosthetics so she can help heal the wounded. But now Marah too wants to escape.
The Diary is also particularly relevant to 1916 and the War of Independence as so many writers penned their observations. Accounts by James Stephens, Miss Lilly Stokes and Lady Norway informed the tone of both Molly and Dan’s diary. Even though these accounts were later re-drafted for publication, they all share an authentic, vivid urgency, the eye for a telling detail.
James Stephens, the children’s author and journalist, wrote the widely influential Insurrection in Dublin, published shortly after Easter Week. He captured the poignancy of how rebellion had a sweet taste for the many children and slum dwellers who swarmed into sweet shops. But he also documented how events could easily turn nasty. Like when the Volunteers challenged a man who refused to leave his cart in their barricade at Stephen’s Green. They shouted warnings and when he didn’t take them seriously, they shot him. Soon a woman began to wail, “He was one of their own!” It turned out he was a Sinn Féin sympathiser involved with the theatre and the set for a nationalist play was in his cart. It was an incident I borrowed to show how a child can be traumatised by witnessing death at close hand. But it also highlights the cruel ironies of armed conflict. Once you “cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war”, it can become as Molly observed, “a mad dog that will not do your bidding”.
Miss Lilly Stokes’ racy Diary of Easter Week, written by a middle-class young woman, was also an influence. Caught up in the street fighting, she starts in a “what larks” tone, all breathless excitement as if it was street theatre. But the account darkens as it comes closer to home.
Lady Norway, the wife of the Head of the Post Office, was holed up in Buswell’s Hotel. She watched from her bedroom window as snipers fired from rooftops and the city centre erupted into flames after shelling – “the most awe inspiring sight I’ve ever seen”. I borrowed her vivid description of how Grafton Street was ankle-deep with the silver, pink and white and papers used to wrap choice fruits after a high class greengrocers was looted.
Using the diary form also allowed me to control the point of view for young readers. They see the world through Molly’s eyes, who records but doesn’t always understand. And children were bearing witness in 1916. They flit through other narratives like ghosts. Some also left accounts, mostly recorded in adulthood, that have the feel of diaries or journals. Like Mary McLoughlin,(sister of the famous “Boy Commander” Sean) a 15-year-old who ran messages from the GPO to Stephen’s Green.
Mary was given £80 by James Connolly to buy food for the half-starved Stephen’s Green garrison but was unable to procure any supplies. Later, she found a gun and nipped back to her North King Street home wearing a blue Jacob’s overall to hide her uniform. Her sensible mother called her a “fine rossie” and locked her in the bathroom but she escaped out the window to go back to the GPO.
I am struck by how they express themselves in a similar unadorned reportage. Flinty sentences forged on the anvil of lived experience.
One message always emerges loud and clear from most of the diaries. For people, but especially children, the enemy isn’t the other side but war itself. As Zlata Filopovic eloquently expressed it, “Daily, children like me, like us, around the world, go into cellars and hiding places, into refugee camps or into the army. With them goes the future of their countries and of the world.”
War diaries record things that most children shouldn’t see. But by bearing witness, either as fiction or true account, the diary is a small victory against writing children’s voices out of history.
Patricia Murphy’s latest novel is Deadly Shot – Dan’s Diary of the War of Independence, recently published by Poolbeg. She is also the author of The Easter Rising 1916 – Molly’s Diary