Category Archives: History

Escape to the River Sea

It is always very nice meeting favourite characters again. Especially those from a really good novel; people you’ve perhaps wondered about after reading their story. You want more, and if someone other than the original author has written ‘more’ then you might be quite happy with that as a solution as well.(I remember finding Ben Gunn in the library when I was a child. Never mind who wrote it. There was more!)

Here is Emma Carroll’s take on what might have happened to the characters in Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea. They really were characters you wanted to meet again.

I was pleased to see what happened to Clovis, who is now a proper adult, seeing as it’s just after WWII. He has taken in 11-year-old Rosa from Austria, along with other evacuees. The arrival of Yara, a young and quite unusual woman, eventually takes Rosa to the Amazon, following in the footsteps of Maia, all those years ago.

WWII has had an effect in Brazil as well, so it’s no longer the same. Neither are Finn and Maia, who are now also proper adults. In my opinion, perhaps too much of properness. (But then, Anne Shirley grew more sensible with age, so perhaps this is inevitable.)

What follows is an Amazonian, post-war adventure, featuring new children in recognisable surroundings. As a story it is fine, and fun, albeit lacking Eva Ibbotson’s magic.

The Outlander Effect

It’s Jacobite blog tour time! Here’s Barbara Henderson with some Outlanderish thoughts:

‘The Americans are back’, my husband remarked drily on his return from Inverness High Street, ten minutes away from our home. Don’t get the wrong impression – this was no disapproving comment. It was dry humour, tinged with relief. He might as well have said ‘Things are finally getting back to normal’.
The devastating effect of the pandemic on international tourism in our area had been acutely felt, particularly as a certain franchise had previously supercharged the tourist economy in these parts. A book, film and fandom feat like no other (perhaps Harry Potter aside).

Can you hear it? The distant and mournful version of the Skye Boat Song, now a major theme tune? I am (of course!) talking about Outlander, Diana Gabaldon’s epic time travel romance which features the Highlands during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745.

Why do some things catch on while others do not? I often find myself bemused by what hits the popularity jackpot. But speaking as an interested observer rather than an Outlander superfan, I can absolutely see the appeal here: standing stones and ancient cairns, a doomed cause, heroism and healing – it’s a compelling mix. As the phenomenon grew, the Highlands changed all around me. Tourist gift shops began to replace their usual stock with Outlander merchandise. Busloads and busloads of Outlander themed tours arrived at key locations like Culloden Battlefield. Fans found each other, both online and in person. Gaelic-learning became fashionable again, and consultant herbalists and craftspeople were hired for the television series. From time to time, adverts for extras would appear in the local papers. I recently attended a creative industries conference. Half a day was given over to figuring it out: How can we as artists and writers and heritage professionals tap into the Outlander Effect? It’s the million-dollar question! That way profit lies.

As a children’s writer, I was well aware of Gabaldon’s books and the huge success of the television series. However, I thought all this had very little to do with me. When I was lucky enough to be published for the first time with my Highland Clearances novel Fir for Luck, I realised: It had everything to do with me.

Let me introduce you to the InverOutlanders, a local Outlander fan organisation. Full of likeable ladies, I have grown very fond of the group. They have been wonderfully supportive of me and of other writers, too. After all, they have already read every word that Gabaldon has written – and they are interested in more Scottish history of that time period. Fiction, non-fiction, it doesn’t seem to matter. It certainly didn’t seem to matter that mine was a children’s book – Scottish history, a time of peril – tell us no more, we’re in!

I began to see them at some of my events. When my own Jacobite novel was ready to submit to publishers, I didn’t have to explain to the publishing world what this Jacobite rebellion was. They already knew. I began to pitch the novel as ‘Outlander for kids’ which was a convenient shortcut to what the book was about.

When The Reluctant Rebel was published on 18th May, the InverOutlanders were first to the microphone, shouting to their 14.6k followers about my book. I can never thank them enough.

I don’t know if I’ll ever meet Diana Gabaldon in real life. But if I do, I am determined to thank her for creating millions of readers who are now interested in Scottish history, culture and heritage. She didn’t mean to, but in some small way, the author of the mighty Outlander series has put my books on the map too.

The Reluctant Rebel, A Jacobite Adventure

Like ‘most’ people, I have known ‘all’ about Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald and ‘over the sea to Skye’. Thanks to Barbara Henderson and her new historical novel The Reluctant Rebel, I now actually ‘know’ something. Lots more, in fact.

I raced through the book, to find out what happened and how. Even when you might know the ending, and how the bonnie Prince never became King, it’s exciting.

We see the story unfold through the eyes of Archie MacDonald – who lost his father at Prestonpans in 1745 – beginning just before Culloden in 1746. Which I knew to have been a disaster, but you don’t learn so much from history books. Well, I don’t.

His master’s three sons are fighting, and not everyone returns home. At least as important, if not more, is Archie’s cousin Meg, a maid at Borrodale. She’s brave and intelligent, even if she does seem to have a crush on the Prince.

Their paths cross the Prince’s, several times, and they are called on to help him escape. Just staying alive is difficult. Because of his father and because of the shock of the bloodiness of Culloden, Archie isn’t sure he supports the Prince’s cause any longer. Soon there is a price on his head as well, which can be tempting for someone who is hungry.

This is a terribly exciting historical adventure, set beautifully to fit in with the real story, and feeling all the better for it.

A Kind of Spark

It is worse than I had expected.

No, not the book. The situation in general, in this life.

As a witch with an interest in autism, Elle McNicoll’s A Kind of Spark has been on my wish list for a couple of years.

I had not stopped to think at all. That is perhaps the mistake we so often make. Witch hunts and the dislike of people who are different, people who are autistic, have a lot in common.

Addie is an 11-year-old autistic girl, currently being bullied by her teacher, having lost her best friend, and feeling utterly alone. Well, she does have her family. Her older twin sisters, one of whom is also autistic. Probably Dad, too, a little bit, and I’m guessing his father as well.

Addie likes sharks. And when the witch trials in the past, which happened in their own village, become known to her, she feels it strongly. So strongly that Addie wants, needs, to do something about it.

But then there are the bullies. And the bystanders. Those who do nothing, or not enough. I kept feeling that even if the book has a happy ending – which it does – it has opened up a totally new way of looking at things. One that is not comforting.

This is a new way of looking at autistic children’s fiction. It’s necessary, but it is also bloody scary, if you’ll pardon my French.

Displaced

It’s hard to know what to think these days. Having read and loved so many children’s books about the Kindertransport and all the other schemes from WWII to get people, children and adults, to safety, I have been proud of what Britain did. With hindsight I realise that not everything was quite like in the books. But still, people arrived here, and many remained and many did well. So apart from the awful reason for them coming, the end result seems to have been OK a lot of the time.

And now we are ashamed of what Britain is not doing. Most of us have the Ukraine in mind, but I don’t mind casting wider and will mention Syria and Afghanistan among many other crisis-laden nations. And that other countries are receiving refugees more generously and with greater ease than seems to be possible here.

One night recently I came to think of ‘my’ first lot of refugees. Not counting the girl from Hungary I was friendly with in my first year at school, because that happened before I was aware, ‘my’ displaced people came from Chile.

Well, they arrived from there, but they were frequently from some other Latin American country, having already fled to Chile from their place of birth. I encountered many of them where I lived, which was a small town. I suspect one reason for their appearance there was that the then head of Amnesty International in Sweden lived nearby. But as is often the case, they moved on, and congregated in the bigger cities, where they could be with others from the same background.

When I moved to Gothenburg, I met Chilean refugees there. And I know many of them are still there, with children and grandchildren born in this other country at the opposite end of the world. Such a lot of them ended up there because one night they clambered over the wall to the Swedish embassy, where the ambassador temporarily achieved hero status for saving so many individuals fleeing for their lives.

So, that night I mentioned, I began wondering if the person whose full name I for some reason still remember, might still be there. He is. That’s the beauty of computerised, publicly available records. Back then he was a political student leader, not from Chile, but from one of the neighbouring countries. I have no idea what he’s done in the nearly fifty years since then, but he’s now ‘old’ and still living in the city that took him in. I wonder what his life has been like. Still marooned at the other end of the world. But I dare say it beats the alternative.

‘Shouldn’t we be ashamed of ourselves?’

Those words came from Alf Dubs; a man with experience of fleeing your country, but luckily for us, being welcomed, or at least allowed, in when he arrived in Britain all those years ago.

I don’t always enjoy Marina Hyde in the Guardian, but Wednesday’s column was one of the good ones. One of the columns that makes one feel ashamed, even when the fault is not one’s own. And her comments about photographs in colour or black and white, and the difference it makes when you look at them, set me thinking about the shoe being on the other foot.

What if ‘nice English people’ were to be stopped at a border somewhere, in desperate need of help, having to queue, and possibly not be allowed in. Because the receiving country is not being friendly. But I don’t believe that our ‘leading politicians’ are capable of seeing themselves, or anyone they care about, in such a situation.

Fiction is good at making you see things that are not necessarily real. Yet. It’s almost exactly nine years since I reviewed After Tomorrow by Gillian Cross. It’s still bone-chillingly current. And it’s five years since I felt I had to publish the review again, because of what was happening.

There are probably other novels about poor British people throwing themselves on the mercies of their European neighbours, but this is my go-to example. I’m just so sorry that it has to be.

And even if we, in this country, don’t ever have to escape to some other place, surely we could welcome [quite] a few from elsewhere? They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have to. It’s especially telling that not even these nice white, and similar to us, refugees are welcomed with open arms, after the discussions in the media about why ‘we’ like them so much better than the Syrians, say, or anyone else fleeing from a more distant country.

Fagin’s Girl

It’s World Book Day. Here, anyway. And children are yet again dressing up for it, and authors are cautiously returning to school visits.

Karen McCombie’s Fagin’s Girl is about another kind of dressing up. A long time ago, when poverty was – probably – even more common than now, the loss of a parent, and the subsequent loss of home and livelihood was serious.

Set in London in 1836 we meet two siblings who end up as orphans and have to try and survive by whatever means available to them. In this case it means turning to crime. And to do crime ‘well’, Ettie has to dress as a boy.

But back then, the solution to too much crime was to ship criminals off to the other side of the world, and that’s what happens here too. To one of them, meaning our two siblings are split up.

The last part of this book takes place in Australia in 1988, when children need to learn about what happened before; what some of their ancestors might have gone through. It’s seeing both sides, then and now, that will show today’s young readers cause and effect, and how quickly life can change.

And that has not changed.

There were bests in 2021 too

I worried. But then I nearly always worry. What did I read? Was it any good?

As always, I read. And yes, it was good, even in 2021. I read fewer books than usual, and with a larger proportion being old, adult or a translation, I have left those out. It’s handy that I make my own rules here.

I’ll put you out of your misery right now. The book standing head and shoulders above all the other really great books is Hilary McKay’s The Swallows’ Flight. Set in WWII, it’s a story I can’t forget (and these days I forget a lot).

Hilary’s is not alone in being a WWII story, as 50% of my 2021 winners are. I don’t know if this is proof that many more such books have been published recently, or if it just shows how much I like them.

The other five are Phil Earle’s When the Sky Falls, Morris Gleitzman’s Always, Liz Kessler’s When the World Was Ours, Tom Palmer’s Arctic Star, and Elizabeth Wein’s The Last Hawk. The latter two are dyslexia-friendly books.

Debi Gliori’s A Cat Called Waverley also features a war, but a more modern one. The illustration below makes me cry every time, and it has that thing which makes a picture book truly great.

Waverley is Scottish, as are C J Dunford’s Fake News, Barbara Henderson’s The Chessmen Thief and Roy Peachey’s The Race.

Last but not least, we have an animal story from Gill Lewis, A Street Dog Named Pup, and a ‘historical futuristic fantasy’ in The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne by Jonathan Stroud.

These twelve gave me much pleasure, and they were not in the slightest hard to choose. If the publishing world continues to give me books like these, I will have no reason to give up [reading].

Always

I was all right. It was fine me not having read two of the books in Morris Gleitzman’s Once series. This one – Always – is the last. And it really is the last. Because several of the books have turned up in random order, it doesn’t actually matter at all. But it does help if you have met and know Felix.

He is an old man now. Granted, he was old before as well, in modern Australia. But when Once began he was a child, and that childlike way of being has remained with both Felix, and the current child in the book. The world is full of sweet and lovely people.

But I suspect that when Morris saw what was going on in Europe today, he needed to write one more book about Felix. Because there are also many rather nasty people, and perhaps a book won’t help change that, but it will help the reader to believe in courage and goodness.

Wassim is the latest – last – child and he is as kind and thoughtful as all the others have been, especially not forgetting Zelda. Either of the Zeldas, but mostly Zelda the first, who died. (I’m sorry if you didn’t know that, but it’s very much part of the story.)

We’re back in, not quite Poland, but somewhere a bit like it, and Wassim is having a hard time, with dead parents and Uncle Otto, who can be harsh sometimes but who took him in, and the Iron Weasels who are very bad. In other words, we and Wassim are looking at a Europe that hates foreigners and coloured people and anyone else who is different; Jews, Muslims. You get the picture.

I’m grateful to Morris for wanting to write about this, which I believe both he and I thought was part of the past, the past where Felix was a child and WWII happened.

Wassim knows he needs help, and he learns about Felix, and he looks him up online. Although it could be worth noting that public libraries ‘can be more dangerous than they look.’

Anyway, he finds Felix and Felix agrees to help him. This is where you need to start worrying. But with these two very sweet people working together, you know some good will come of it. Even if you also know, or suspect, that some bad is unavoidable. Remember Zelda.

Now is very much a time when we need a Felix.

Fortune Favours the Dead

Sometimes a witch has to retire a little bit, in order to get to some good new stuff to read. (I can recommend it.)

Stephen Spotswood’s Fortune Favours the Dead wasn’t new new, so much as lying in wait for me, because we both knew, the book and I, that I would get to it, if only I could. This debut crime novel came along as my guaranteed good read on that trip in October. And it was good.

It’s a Pentecost and Parker mystery, and both of them – Lillian and Willowjean – are female private eyes, in the kind of New York so many of us know quite well, because 1946 and New York feature a lot in films. This tale is told by Parker, the sidekick discovered by Pentecost just as the former was getting ready to bash her head in with a lead pipe.

I suppose it’s obvious that this could not have been written 75 years ago. Too much looking out for other women, too much same sex love, too much equality if you like. But that’s good. And it’s funny, and you like Willowjean, because she’s brave and capable, and you like Lillian, who is a great boss. There is also a more than useful cook, also female.

It’s a locked-room mystery. It had to be suicide, didn’t it? A dead woman’s dead husband’s ghost can’t really have murdered her. Can he? We’re moving in well-off circles, if not the exceptionally wealthy. But you know, featuring beautiful women wearing gorgeous clothes. (I look forward to the movie.)

With her background in the circus, Parker is no stranger to a bit of knife-throwing. It can come in handy. As do most of the other things she can do for Pentecost, who has multiple sclerosis, with better days and worse days.

It’s a very visual story; you have no trouble seeing these characters or the settings. Please bring on the film! Meanwhile, I’d usually say I can’t wait to get my hands on book no. two, but this time I can’t, because it arrived a couple of days ago. I really was quite late with this one, from just over a year ago. Won’t be late again.