Saturday, 22 September 2018

Children’s Fiction.

Here are two completely different war stories for children – though the second title is definitely more suited to teenage readers.  It is a story of The Great War, The War to End All Wars, and it deals unflinchingly with more adult themes and their consequences, including the Influenza pandemic that engulfed the world at the end of hostilities.  Despite their vast differences in time and place, both titles have in common the terrible cost that war forces upon us all, especially the children.

The Blue Cat, by Ursula Dubosarsky.

            Sydney, Australia in 1942:  Columba and her best friend Hilda watch, fascinated, as a new boy is introduced to the school by the Headmaster at assembly.  His name is Ellery and he has come from You-Rope, where they speak French and where Hitler is.  ‘The Pope lives there, too’, remarks Hilda, who is known as That Child! by Columba’s mother, because Hilda soaks up information – and gossip – like a sponge and passes it all on like the bush telegraph. 
            Ellery is the palest boy Columba has ever seen which is a worry, for the Australian sun is fierce;  they haven’t had rain for months, the big dam is nearly dry and new water restrictions have been brought in:  Ellery will be fried like a sausage if he doesn’t keep out of the sun, and despite the general urge to scoff at those who are different, Columba is curious and concerned about Ellery.  He lives in a flat with his father, but where is his mother?  She wishes he could speak English so that she could ask him, for Columbia is a naturally curious child – especially about her own name, which she knows means ‘Dove’, and she has exhausted her mother’s patience more than once with her relentless questioning.  But why does Ellery carry with him ALL the time a book written in German, ‘Die SchatzInsel’?  German is the enemy’s language in You-Rope;  they are the enemies along with Japan of King George and the British Empire, and the Australian Army is fighting them at this very minute!
            Another mysterious new arrival in the street is a large grey/blue cat, a stray who adopts two spinster ladies for a time.  They are Columba’s next-door neighbours, Miss Hazel and Miss Marguerite, and they are bereft when the cat moves on, especially Miss Marguerite, who is ‘delicate’.  Where has it gone?  Will it return?
            The questions multiply as Hilda turns up at school to announce importantly that her big brother is now a prisoner-of-war in Italy:  Hilda hopes he will be getting enough to eat.  (Her mother’s words).  And the warships in the harbour multiply, too:  the Americans have arrived to save them all!  But Columba still wants to know about Ellery.  Because she wants to be his friend.
            Ms Dubosarsky captures the times perfectly.  Her characters are exactly right, a great humorous mix of the young and old, and every chapter is accompanied by pictures and newspaper clippings of the day, which is an inspired addition to this lovely story.  Perfect for those keen young readers ten and upwards.  FIVE STARS

The Goose Road, by Rowena House.

         In Northern France in 1916, Angelique Lacroix receives the dread news that her father, who was one of the first to enlist in the French army, has been killed in the battle of Verdun.  Her mother is stunned with grief;  Angelique is not.  She hated her father, who beat her and her adored brother Pascal often, especially when he had been drinking;  she is just glad that it wasn’t Pascal who died:  now the family farm will belong to him and he will come home from war victorious, and marry Angelique’s very best friend.  She hopes.  Such are the dreams of a 14 year old.  In the meantime she and her mother must carry on and save what they have for him, even though the French army keeps passing through their district ‘requisitioning’ any livestock to feed their troops – and thanks to the troops’ rampant and brutal theft of every farm’s animals and poultry, people are beginning to starve;  Angelique hopes that the army doesn’t discover their farm, remote as it is.
            But they do, and remove their cow and pig.  Nothing is left except Pascal’s flock of magnificent Toulouse geese, hidden in the woods when the army scouts arrive.  And as if that were not enough tragedy, their father’s gambling debts surface in the shape of angry creditors demanding what is owed:  they will lose the farm and very soon be homeless unless Angelique and her mother can think of a solution, and the only solution is for Angelique and her Uncle Gustav to herd her beautiful geese across France to find the highest bidder in a country that is desperate for food, a country full of liars and profiteers, good people who are starving – and English and French Officers who will pay astronomical prices for a Christmas Goose, especially those Officers who are expecting to die in battle soon.
            Ms House recounts Angelique’s journey with her beloved Uncle as suspensefully as any good thriller writer;  her characters are rock-solid and she captures all too well the desperation and despair that makes good people do terrible things – and those like Angelique’s childhood friend René, who enlists in the army despite having a withered leg from a bout of Polio:  he couldn’t bear to be called a coward.  This is a truly great book for all teen readers.  FIVE STARS      

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