The Scarecrows by Robert Westall (Chatto & Windus, 1981)
The story is set in 1975. Thirteen year old Simon Wood lost his adored father when he was killed in Aden many years before. He is at a private prep school while his mother, Deb, lives with his young sister, Jane. Simon is very protective of his mother, and when she takes part in a tennis match at a school open day, he beats up a boy who makes sexual remarks about her, though he remembers little of the beating. On a subsequent occasion, Deb brings a famous artist, Joe Moreton, to the school. Simon hates him instantly, angry that Deb is with another man and dishonouring his father.
Some time later, Deb comes to the school to tell Simon that she is marrying Joe. Simon begs her not to, but she says she has already made up her mind, and they will be moving to live with Joe in his house in a small village. Simon, angry at his mother, refuses to attend her wedding, and says to give away all his things other than his father's military effects, willed to Simon when his father died.
During the school summer holiday, Simon stays for several weeks with his father's friend, Colonel Nunk, on a para training base. Simon eventually gets a lift in an army truck to the village where Deb, Jane and Joe Moreton now live. He comes into the house and hears Jane playing with Joe. Angry that Jane has accepted Joe so easily, Simon runs away when his mother approaches. Simon hides from his mother and after she returns to the house crosses an adjacent turnip field and discovers an old water mill. Inside, he finds old coats and other personal effects, plus papers that suggest that the place has been abandoned since 1943.
Back at the house, his resentment of Joe, Jane and Deb continues. He rescues a starving cat and her kittens, and though Joe pays for the animals' vet treatment, Simon still loathes him.
Simon finds a hole in the floor of his bedroom closet and is able to hear Joe and Deb in their bedroom directly below, and learns of Joe's frustration and bewilderment that he cannot get through to Simon.
Things come to a head one night when Deb and Joe go out for the evening. Once Jane is asleep, Simon takes his father's army uniform and places it on his mother's and Joe's bed, to show her that she is dishonouring Simon's father's memory. Deb is horrified when she and Joe return, and Simon's anger boils over, and he calls his mother a whore, whereupon she slaps him. He runs to the turnip field, faces towards Aden, where his father is buried, and begs him for help in getting revenge against Deb, Jane and Joe.
Next morning, things are very tense, with Deb Jane and Joe being cold to Simon. He goes outside and is astonished to see that three scarecrows are now in the turnip field. An aged gardener tells Simon that the water mill has a dark past. In 1943, the mill's owner was murdered by his wife and her lover. Simon goes to see the scarecrows. Two are dressed as men and one as a woman. What is more, they are wearing clothes that Simon saw in the water mill. Suddenly, Simon realises that when he was facing Aden, he was also facing the water mill, and believes that it is the three who were involved in the 1943 tragedy who answered his plea, not his father. Over the next few days, the scarecrows move gradually closer to the house, but Simon cannot bring himself to tell his mother and Joe for fear they will think him mad, nor does he have any idea how to stop them.
The Scarecrows garnered considerable praise when it was published and in subsequent years. In my opinion, that praise is well deserved. The supernatural elements do not really come into play until about 2/3 into the book. In other writers' hands, that might be a negative, but Westall is so skilled that the gradual build-up of Simon's anger and frustration is riveting. Initially, my sympathy was with Simon and his hatred of the paunchy Joe Moreton, but as the book develops, Joe comes across as a decent man who genuinely loves Deb and Jane, and is desperately trying to be accepted by Simon. It also emerges that Simon's father was not quite all he seemed. Deb tells Joe that he was planning to leave her prior to his death, and that he could be cold and unfeeling, even though Simon worships him as a hero. As is usual with Westall's books for children, at no point does he speak down to them, and there are passages of moderate bad language, plus several times when Simon listens to Joe and Deb's lovemaking while he has his ear pressed to the hole in his closet floor. There is also a scene where Simon takes his father's old service revolver and loads it to deter the scarecrows from coming closer to the house, until a horrified Deb and Joe wrestle it from him. There is no mention that Deb has a firearms certificate, so how a revolver could be allowed to be in the house is bewildering, even for 1975 when things were different. All in all, The Scarecrows is well worth reading and typical of Westall's approach to writing for children