Hotel Boy introduces an interesting and unusual perspective in that the setting is a hotel (smallish, almost a boarding house) in the English seaside town of Forbury. Michael’s father was killed in 1940 while serving in France with the British Expeditionary Force. Michael and his mum are uprooted from their home and transplanted to Roselea, where Michael is dismayed to learn that he is not to have a bedroom of his own. His sleeping quarters will be in the hotel’s hairdressing salon, run by the hotelkeeper’s daughter, Lorna. (Why is it that fictional boy heroes so often find themselves lacking a bedroom? Harry Potter slept in a closet beneath the stairs!)
Trythall cleverly keeps pace with wartime goings-on through quotes from Churchill’s speeches. My favorite, given at the beginning of Chapter 10, is from Churchill’s 1941 speech to the boys of his old school: “These are not dark days; these are great days—the greatest days our country has ever lived;”
The experience of the times is evoked in many small details. A radio really was called a wireless, and there was a warming-up period between turning (switching) on the radio and being able to hear any sound; the valves (vacuum tubes to Canadians and Americans) needed time to heat up and become active. Unless you kept chickens of your own, egg powder would be your wartime substitute for actual eggs. Coupons were needed to buy clothes, or to buy almost anything at all: meat, poultry, sugar, coal, . . . The list was long.
Tidbits mentioned in the book include listening to radio broadcasts from Germany by Lord Haw-Haw, the British traitor whose ‘la-di-dah’ accent so amused the British public. A less well known tidbit is the bombing raid by Vichy French aircraft against Gibraltar—retaliation for the Royal Navy’s attack on the French naval base at Oran.
The author never lets us forget that Michael is a boy and is doing boy’s stuff. This includes reading the ‘Just William’ books. These were written by female author Richmal Crompton and might be considered the Harry Potter books of the time. She wrote over forty of them, beginning in the nineteen twenties and ending in the early seventies. Just William is the title of the first book. Michael, our boy hero in Hotel Boy, sees the resourceful, up-for-anything William as his role model and tries to live life accordingly.
His life, of course, is impacted by those around him. The central theme of Hotel Boy revolves around the microcosm of society represented by the people of Roselea: guests arriving for the weekend, guests who stay year round, the owner and his wife, their daughter, the RAF pilots who are regular customers at the hotel bar, their girlfriends, the RAF Wing Commander who is the love interest of Michael’s mother and, of course, Michael and his mother, themselves, whose relocation from the city gives them a status akin to being refugees. Toss in violent death, youthful sex, jealousy, and unwanted pregnancy, and one has an entertaining piece of fiction that closely mirrors life.
All in all, if you were fortunate to have lived during “the greatest days our country has ever lived,” or if your parents or grandparents lived through those times, or if you are simply curious, you will find Hotel Boy by John Trythall both enjoyable and informative.