Category Archives: History

The Endless Steppe

Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe was re-issued a few years ago now, and it has been sitting on my close radar ever since. I knew it’d be good, but perhaps not quite this good. It’s the kind of book you kick yourself for not having got to sooner. But I comfort myself in the knowledge that I finished reading it on – what would have been – Esther’s 85 birthday. She celebrates a few birthdays in the book, so it seemed appropriate.

Esther Hautzig, The Endless Steppe

If you’ve read Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray, this – especially the beginning – will seem awfully familiar. Nothing to do with copying; it’s just that both are describing the same event, for very similar people. It’s when the Russians rounded up the Jews in Vilnius in 1941 and put them on goods trains to Siberia.

Ten-year-old Esther gets taken from the large house, and loving home, where she lived with nearly all her relatives. Many of them disappeared that morning, and it’s only Esther and her parents and grandparents who are put on the back of a lorry. But they were the ‘lucky’ ones, as everyone else eventually died in the concentration camps.

They spent five years in Rubtsovsk, which was then merely a village. After a tough start planting potatoes and trying to make them grow in the harsh Siberian conditions, the family ended up working and living mainly in Rubtsovsk. It sounds good, but life for them was very difficult. Even for people who had been born there life was hard. The winters sound so cruel you can’t believe anyone could survive.

Her beautiful mother almost kills herself working in one job worse than the other, and her father is often forced to work away, while living conditions [renting a small corner of someone else’s very small home] meant that they couldn’t always be with Esther’s grandmother. As for herself, at the end she almost comes to love it in Siberia. She has friends and she adores school.

This being an account of what happened to real people it is very inspiring while also being quite awful. You have all the memories of the hunger and the cold, beautifully combined with the tale of a child growing up, and all the humour that this entails, as well as ordinary childhood angst. Written in the 1960s, it’s not that long afterwards, so I imagine Esther remembered most of the details. I was left wanting to know more about her life, and that of her parents. I hoped she’d still be alive, but she died in 2009.

Fling and Sling

Or Fling, Sling and Batter your way to Victory as the full title reads. It’s ‘all you need to know about medieval weaponry.’

What’s more, this ‘book’ written by Philip Steele is as much toy as book, since you can build a working catapult with the 15 model pieces and the two rubber bands. (I like the preciseness of the number of rubber bands…)

Fling, Sling and Batter your way to Victory

It’s actually quite interesting. I learned things I didn’t know before. You know how when you read medieval novels (ones set in those days, rather than being quite that old) and there is fighting, they will mention ‘stuff’? Well, I’m the kind of person who just reads on, not necessarily able to visualise quite how these warriors are fighting each other.

Mobile towers (no, not anything to do with phone reception) and battering rams are both concepts from past reading. And it’s not until now I actually know both what they look like and how they work!

I’m not totally sold on catapults, however, and the trebuchet looks lethal. I know which end of it I’d prefer to be. And ‘storming the breach’ looks much more dangerous than the words suggest.

I suspect that real catapults didn’t depend on rubber bands, either.

This is very hands-on non-fiction reading.

The graphic Peter Pan

I wish there had been graphic novels when I was young. I could be wrong, but I believe we only had comics. Which isn’t necessarily bad, but it would have been fun to have had access to the classics in picture form. There must have been many of us who’d never dream of reading one of those well known classic novels. The kind where you’d know the title, and you might have seen the film, but where you’d stop and think the book will just be too hard to read. Because it’s a ‘proper’ book.

J M Barrie, Peter Pan, adapted by Stref with Fin Cramb

Now Birlinn have transformed Peter Pan into a beautiful picture story, adapted by Stref with Fin Cramb (what fantastic names!).

The illustrations are most attractive, and some of them I could sit and stare at for a long time. And if you read the whole thing, you get all of Peter Pan as well.

J M Barrie, Peter Pan, adapted by Stref with Fin Cramb

Light on Dumyat

Light on Dumyat is an old book, but not as old as I’d believed. First published in 1982, Rennie McOwan doesn’t say when it is set, but I’m guessing the 1950s. There are sheep in the middle of Stirling, and that rather determines the period. As the Resident IT Consultant said, there were just about sheep in his time, so I’m thinking this is a little before then.

Rennie McOwan, Light on Dumyat

Rennie McOwan lives very locally. Maybe I see him out and don’t know it. The Resident IT Consultant once went walking with him, when he was a teenager. That’s the Resident IT Consultant, not Rennie, who as an adult was a good companion because he had a car and could offer a walk somewhere more interesting.

Not that Stirling isn’t interesting, and Dumyat, which is a hill in the nearby Ochils, is as worthy as anywhere. You can tell that Rennie knows about walking and living wild. Light on Dumyat is basically the Famous Five in the Scottish countryside, and by now a wonderful period piece as well.

The book features 12-year-old Gavin who comes to stay for the holidays with his aunt and uncle near Stirling, and this young Englishman really takes to the hills. He meets three local children who seem to have adventures all the time and they set him a challenge to see if he can join their gang.

Gavin is stronger and more cunning than they thought, but the whole adventure is sidetracked when thieves try to steal his uncle’s valuable silver. That’s when his new friends really come into their own.

Very nice and innocent, and the kind of thing I’d have lapped up at the right age. Now, I’m too unfit to attempt Dumyat [that’s dum-eye-at], so will have to gaze at it from afar instead.

(I see there are a few more books about these children.)

Darker Ends

If you are feeling nervous, and would like to read a book to calm you down, I suggest you don’t choose Alex Nye’s new novel Darker Ends. If, on the other hand, you don’t mind feeling scared as you are transported into the depths of a dark and snowy Glencoe at night, then it might well be just your thing.

Alex Nye, Darker Ends

I liked the book, but rather wished I’d not been reading it when I was reading it. Unless, yes, perhaps there is no safe place in which to read Darker Ends, and in that case…

We meet 14-year-old Maggie and her nine-year-old brother Rory home alone (scream!!) at the ancient inn their parents have just bought in Glencoe.

And now the parents have gone out to do some shopping (honestly!) and they are not returning home, and it’s dark and there is a snowstorm outside and the old inn creaks and groans and the children are feeling increasingly scared,

when a strange man knocks on the door asking for shelter. He’s not their only concern, either. There appears to be a resident ghost upstairs. So between the stranded traveller, the mysterious ghost boy, the weather and being suddenly thrown in with a group of people fleeing for their lives back in 1692 – Massacre of Glencoe – Maggie and Rory have a most eventful night.

Who, or what, will kill them first? And are their parents all right?

It’s a Wonderful Book

Sju förtrollade kvällar is the title of Mårten Sandén’s new book. You might remember Mårten from an earlier book of his which was translated into English, published by Pushkin, or his profile on here a couple of years ago.

This one isn’t, but I have been somewhat bewitched by his Seven Bewitched Nights (dreadful translation, I know, but roughly right), and I can’t not mention it. It’s another of the far too rare perfect little children’s books you dream of. Short and relatively simple, it still catches the interest of an adult reader, and there will be things in the book that perhaps the child reader won’t see.

Mårten Sandén, Sju förtrollade kvällar

It felt surprisingly familiar in some way, and it took me a while to work out where I was (a romantic time travel film) in my mind. So, not terribly original; just very nicely executed.

The book is about 12-year-old Buster, who boxes and struggles with his homework. His dead, older brother Jack was his complete opposite. Buster suddenly gets talking to The-Girl-Who-Reads at school, and he also discovers what life is like for an older boy who is bullied, by one of Buster’s friends. And one evening Buster is given  seven old-style cinema tickets by an elderly man in town. From then on nothing is quite as it was.

I was transported right back to my childhood, in a charming way. Yes, OK, there were bad things. But this is nostalgia, as well as a story about how you live your life. And the cover is gorgeous.

(Life as an untranslated book isn’t easy. There are many good ones. But I hope this one can have a future in English too.)

Girl on a Plane

Not long into Girl on a Plane I felt really nervous and wondered why I was reading about a plane hijacking. It was so very realistic. Then I wondered what time of year it was (senior moment) and decided that it was after the summer holidays and I’d not be flying anywhere anytime soon. No, I thought, I’m flying tomorrow. No, the day after tomorrow. Oops. So my timing was bad for reading this tremendously exciting book.

Miriam Moss, Girl on a Plane

Miriam Moss knows her stuff, because she was a passenger on one of those planes in September 1970 which were hijacked and flown to a desert airstrip in Jordan. She was only 15, just like her character Anna, who was flying back to boarding school in England.

Her BOAC plane was the fourth plane in a few days to be hijacked by the PFLP, and the hijackers demanded that Leila Khaled be freed by Prime Minister Ted Heath after she was jailed for an earlier incident.

If the names BOAC and Leila Khaled bring back memories, you will probably enjoy the period feel of this novel. I’m virtually the same age as Miriam/Anna so remember most of this surprisingly well. What I appreciate is that Miriam has got it right, which isn’t always the case with ‘history.’ She knows what clothes a girl would have worn, she remembers the food people ate, what flying was like, how much people smoked and how acceptable it was.

This book made me feel as though I was there. I’m glad I wasn’t, but am grateful Miriam is ready to share, because it’s a new part of recent history, most likely completely unknown to the intended readers of this book. It’s also surprisingly low key, considering we’re talking terrorism, and it’s all the better for it.

For those of us who were around in 1970 it’s not the ‘what will happen?’ that is of interest. We already know. It’s ‘what was it like?’ which is almost impossible to imagine for anyone not actually there. Even the invited press failed to grasp what it was like, despite looking at it.

Maybe don’t read this just before* getting on a plane, but do read Girl on a Plane. It’s a great thriller, as well as a trip down memory lane.

Miriam Moss

*I noted with amusement that it was one of the recommended books in the airport bookshop… And as you will have realised, I wasn’t hijacked. This time.