Summary: Chapter 5

Kathy recalls her involvement with the secret guard, a small group of students dedicated to protecting Miss Geraldine from a supposed kidnapping plot. Led by Ruth, the guard collects “evidence” linking various guardians and students to the plot. Although the details of the plot are always vague, the guard believes that it will involve the woods behind Hailsham. Students generally fear the woods, passing down frightening stories about former students who died there. One rumor involves a boy found with his hands and feet cut off, while another is about a little girl who starved to death. Kathy and her friends once “punished” their classmate Marge K. for embarrassing them by forcing her to look at the woods at night through a window.

Kathy remembers that everyone in the secret guard helped to maintain the “fantasy” of the plot, even after outgrowing it. By way of explanation, she describes an incident she has with Ruth over chess. One day, Kathy buys a chess set at a Sale because she thinks Ruth can teach her to play. Ruth has often implied that she knows the game, but her attempt to teach Kathy shows that she does not. Kathy walks away from their game in anger. The next day, Ruth expels Kathy from the secret guard. Nonetheless, Kathy still defends the guard when another student calls it childish. Kathy’s memories jump ahead about three years. Ruth comes to class with a new polka-dotted pencil case, insinuating that it is a gift from Miss Geraldine. Ruth often implies that she is a special favorite of Miss Geraldine, although Kathy can never tell if she is telling the truth. Kathy is particularly annoyed about the pencil case, which she suspects Ruth purchased at a recent Sale. As a test, she tells Ruth that she has seen the register where Sale purchases are recorded. Kathy is bluffing, but when Ruth becomes visibly upset, this confirms Kathy’s theory. Kathy immediately regrets trying to catch her in a lie. She assures Ruth that she did not see much in the register, but Ruth walks away.

Summary: Chapter 6

After the pencil case incident, Kathy tries to make up for her behavior by implying that Miss Geraldine does favor Ruth. One day, another student asks where Ruth got her pencil case. Ruth hesitates, but Kathy covers for her by calling it a mystery. Ruth seems pleased, and eager to do something for Kathy in return. The opportunity arises when Kathy loses her favorite cassette tape, a Judy Bridgewater album called Songs After Dark. This tape triggers several other memories. Kathy briefly recalls a later visit to Norfolk, where she found a copy of the tape with Tommy. Norfolk reminds her of Miss Emily, who used calendar photos to teach the students about the English counties. Miss Emily did not have any pictures of Norfolk, which she called “a lost corner” of England. Because the Hailsham lost-and-found was also called the “Lost Corner,” the students began to think that all lost property found in England ended up in Norfolk. Kathy recalls believing this as a child, although it later became a joke. When she and Ruth later spoke about Norfolk at Ruth’s recovery center, Ruth recalled the comfort of believing in Norfolk. Kathy says that finding a copy of her tape in Norfolk brought back the wish to believe in its power.

Kathy returns to the story of losing her tape, which she notes has Judy Bridgewater holding a cigarette on the cover. She keeps the tape hidden at Hailsham because the students are told they must stay perfectly healthy and as such are explicitly forbidden from smoking. Kathy often plays her favorite track, “Never Let Me Go,” when she is alone in the dormitory. The refrain, “Baby, baby, never let me go,” makes her think the song is about a woman who miraculously has a baby after being told that she cannot have children. Kathy imagines the woman singing and holding her baby. The song conveys the woman’s happiness, but also her fear that the baby will be taken away. One day, Kathy is singing along to the song and swaying her pillow like a baby. When the song ends, she sees Madame watching her from the hallway. Madame is crying, and leaves abruptly. Kathy does not discuss the incident at first. She only tells Tommy a couple of years later, after they begin theorizing about Miss Lucy. Tommy theorizes that Madame cried because she knew the students could not have babies. Two months after the encounter with Madame, Kathy’s tape disappears. Ruth helps her search for it, and later gives Kathy another tape called Twenty Classic Dance Tunes. Kathy still has this tape as an adult, and considers it one of her most precious possessions.

Analysis

Like Hailsham itself, Ruth’s secret guard operates on the principles of secrecy and investigation. Its members endlessly collect “evidence” of a secret but ambiguous plot, shielding their theories from other students and guardians. In the same way, Hailsham students must piece together the guardians’ veiled hints and references in order to understand the ambiguous “plot” that governs their lives. However, the “secret guard” allows Ruth to play out an elaborate fantasy of control. As its name suggests, the guard lets the students imagine themselves as “guardians” who protect Miss Geraldine and hold secret information. Ruth herself invents the rules, and runs the game with total authority. The secret guard also gives the students a privileged, if make-believe, connection to Miss Geraldine, a guardian beloved for her kindness. Ruth’s sly hints about her pencil case are another form of this make-believe, reflecting her desire for reciprocal affection from Miss Geraldine.

Ruth’s devotion to Miss Geraldine contrasts with Tommy’s curiosity about Miss Lucy. While Ruth makes up evidence for her bond with Miss Geraldine, Tommy uses the evidence from his conversation with Miss Lucy to theorize about the mysterious link between donations and creativity. Kathy supports both of them, first defending Ruth’s secret guard and later theorizing with Tommy. This reflects her competing desires to believe in fantasy and to know the truth. The secret guard and Miss Geraldine belong to the realm of childhood make-believe, while Miss Lucy’s veiled comments about donations bring Kathy and Tommy closer to the ominous reality about their adulthood. Their detective work is a real-life counterpart to the make-believe investigations of the secret guard. Kathy's narration also forces the reader to engage in the same kind of detective work, piecing together the clues that she drops. Just as the details available to Hailsham students are often partial and ambiguous, so too are the details that Kathy shares with her readers.

The students’ fears about the woods convey a more general sense of foreboding about what lies beyond the familiar walls of Hailsham. Like much of their knowledge, what the students know of the woods comes largely from rumor and speculation. Yet the terrible stories about children who leave Hailsham also foreshadow the students’ own futures. The child with his arms and legs cut off is a grim fairy tale version of the donation process, in which students will lose parts of their own bodies until they die. The secret guard allows the students to displace this danger onto Miss Geraldine, while the “punishment” of Marge K. reflects the true terror that comes with looking directly at what lies beyond Hailsham.

Meanwhile, the incidents involving Ruth's pencil case and Kathy's chess set highlight tensions in their friendship. These episodes show Ruth’s tendency to insinuate that she knows more than she does, a habit that Kathy finds particularly annoying. Yet in each case, Kathy retaliates with her own forms of insinuation. She avoids direct confrontation, like when she walks away to show her anger about the chess game. She also adapts Ruth’s strategy of subtle hinting when she implies that she has seen the Sale register. This “test” furthermore echoes the girls’ test of Madame’s fear. Just as the girls deduced fear in Madame’s expression, Kathy deduces Ruth’s lie by observing her reaction. Her indirectness is characteristic of Hailsham more broadly, where guardians and students alike communicate evasively about sensitive topics. Meanwhile, Tommy and Kathy continue to bond by interpreting the strange behavior of the adults at Hailsham. Noticeably, Kathy displays more openness in her conversations with Tommy than she does in her conversations with Ruth. She shares yet another secret with him when she speaks about seeing Madame in the dormitory, although she also displays her typical caution by waiting years to tell him.

The novel's title comes from Kathy’s favorite track on Songs After Dark, "Never Let Me Go." On one level, Kathy's childhood interpretation of the song highlights a pervasive fear of loss among the students at Hailsham. Just as the secret guard acts out their fear of losing the kind Miss Geraldine, Kathy imagines that “Never Let Me Go” is about a woman afraid of losing her baby. On another level, “Never Let Me Go” evokes the deeply human impulse to hold onto loved ones in the face of losing them. The disappearance of the tape itself gives Kathy an early taste of loss on a small scale, as she grieves for a beloved object. The “lost corner” of Norfolk, meanwhile, introduces the comforting hope that lost things can always be found again. Kathy frames this belief as another childhood fantasy, one that is not sustainable in the world beyond Hailsham. When she later finds a copy of her lost tape in Norfolk, she only feels the wish to believe in Norfolk's power again.


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