Themes: World War II history, evacuees, family, secrets, mining communities, small town communities, unsolved disappearance.
For ages 9+
This tender story is set in a small coal mine village in South Wales, during the beginning of World War II in 1939. Children are evacuated from Islington, London and sent to live with families in Wales which is a stark contrast to life in London. Twelve-year-old Jimmy desperately misses his Dad and Nan back home and struggles to adapt to his new ‘home’ and surroundings. He grapples with all that has changed. Nothing is as it was in London including the climate, the environment, the language especially some of the welsh dialect, the small knit community and his expectations of what he was expecting to see in Wales did not reconcile with the reality, which proved to be an industrial village. All these factors are so foreign to Jimmy, further exacerbating his feeling of being an outsider. Another significant and difficult challenge for Jimmy is the fellow evacuees and how moving to London has brought out changes in them he could have never anticipated, especially with his best friend Duff as well as Florence Campbell who was not well liked in London. Coupled with the enormous changes, Jimmy also feels the responsibility to look after and protect his likeable six-year-old brother Ronnie who seems to be adapting to his new environment and family they have been billeted with quite well.
While exploring his new neighbourhood, Jimmy discovers a human skull in the hollow of a tree and this sets his mind racing in this foreign place where he feels so alone. Who does the skull belong to? Is there a murderer living in his new home? Is he really safer here than he would be in London? This mystery also has Jimmy questioning who he can trust with this information. He does not want to burden his younger brother and his best and oldest friend Duff has proven they are no longer friends.
A new place means new beginnings in more ways than Jimmy could have ever bargained for. He finds not only a fiercely loyal ally, but also a resourceful, trustworthy friend in a person he would have never expected. Together they set about to solve this mystery of the skull and in doing so make life changing discoveries that affect them and the village in Wales.
The author, Lesley Parr, grew up in Wales, even though the setting of Llanbryn is fictional it is based on the places in Wales where the evacuees were sent. Parr’s experience of living in Wales shines through and the visual imagery in the book allows the reader to build up a picture of what the village looks and feels like.
The story explores life in a small mining town. It highlights how this close-knit community know each other well and generally look out for their neighbours. However, there are some negative dynamics. Some people are judged and when this judgement is driven by someone who is highly respected in the town it is difficult to escape the biased views as well as the gossip. Jimmy learns that looks can be deceiving, that everyone has a story and an understanding of someone’s past sheds light on why they act a certain way. Through shared stories, Jimmy learns about the fears, struggles, hardships, trials, joys, loves and successes of others, resulting in shared experiences and common ground being found. This connection fosters stronger relationships. Through connecting with other characters, Jimmy not only learns about them, but also about himself.
The beginning of each chapter features an illustration of the tree with details that relate to the unfolding story. This is a fun way to begin each chapter and reinforce the storyline. It is interesting to note the additions to the evolving artwork.
There is so much to appreciate about this book. The characters are authentic, rich and layered; the story is fast paced and engaging; there is an intriguing mystery to be solved (in fact, there are actually two mysteries to solve and the astute reader will identify this part way through the book) and the setting is so well described the reader can visualise themselves there.