Just Henry is the story about a boy called Henry, who is sometimes called Henry Dodge and sometimes called Henry Carpenter, so ends up being just Henry. He lives with his mother and stepfather, his stepsister Molly and his Gran (the mother of his father). While he grows up, he is told many tales of his father's heroism and his Gran takes every opportunity to talk down his stepfather Bill and Molly.
When a new teacher takes over history Henry is forced into a group for project work with Jefferies (the son of a supposed deserter) and Pip (an illegitimate child). At first he deeply resents this, but learns to see beyond the stigma and make friends. Just when his life is at its happiest, Henry makes a shocking discovery that causes his world to fall apart.
Michelle Magorian has set this book (as she has done with a number of her other novels) in the time around the Second World War. This one takes place when the war has ended, but rationing is still in place and the buildings remain razed from the enemy bombardment. The story is enriched with details that help bring this period to life - the queuing for food, the sharing of rations in the event of birthday parties, women doing odd jobs to bring in extra money. It is fascinating to read about a time so very different to now.
Magorian writes with great warmth and an appreciation of her target audience. The story is gripping and engaging, but also does not steer away from more hard-hitting events such as bigamy and a drunken father using his fists too much. It is to Magorian's credit that she does not believe in sugar-coating the lives she writes about.
I also deeply enjoyed the way that films from the time were discussed and lived through in the course of the novel. Henry and his friends end up going to the cinema as many times a week as they can afford and enjoy watching an array of different films. It brings to life a more simplistic existence, where children worked hard for their pocket money and one of the few forms of entertainment was film.
I had a few minor quibbles with the book. One of these was Mrs Beaufort - she is a central character to the story, but seems a little too fantastic. She invites people to live in her huge house, pays for the children to see films and helps a few of them go into the career that they want with all their heart. You do wonder if there is anything this woman can't do or handle, which makes her seem a bit of a "Mary Sue".
I also found the wrapping up of the story to be a little too neat - especially when Pip, Jefferies and Henry all end up finding glittering futures doing the jobs they have dreamed about. Or maybe this is supposed to be a commentary on the fact that you can achieve anything if you just set your mind to it.
I did thoroughly approve of the message being passed to children that they should always look beyond prejudices and never believe what they are told of people; instead they should make up their own minds. I also liked that the prejudices here avoided the commonplace (such as colour of skin) and dealt with two that were unique to the period - illegitimacy and desertion.
This is a very good book that both boys and girls of early teens would enjoy greatly.