Category Archives: War

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.

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.

Mr Sparks

‘Well, I didn’t see this coming!’ I thought I knew where Danny Weston was going with his new novel, Mr Sparks. Set in 1919, it’s the story about 12-year-old almost orphaned Owen. He lives with his ghastly aunt at her hotel in Llandudno, when one day a strange man arrives, with even stranger luggage.

It talks. The man is, of course, a ventriloquist. Or is he? As Owen gets closer it appears that the dummy, pardon, Mr Sparks, speaks and thinks on its own. But that’s not possible. Is it?

(I’d say Mr Sparks is as real as, erm, Danny Weston. And we all know him, don’t we?)

Danny Weston, Mr Sparks

Soon this little horror story has Owen and Mr Sparks in a closer relationship than the boy had imagined possible. Who is in control?

It’s not as scary as I had been afraid. It’s more creepy. And then it didn’t go in quite the direction I’d imagined. And then it looked fairly promising, all set for a happy-ish ending, and then, well, maybe it didn’t. I know how it ends. As long as that Danny Weston doesn’t do anything I don’t want him to do!

You hear me?

I should probably disclose that Danny has been kind enough to dedicate Mr Sparks to me (and someone else, whom I shall ignore for the moment), which is, well, nice. It was clever of him to let Owen live in Llandudno, that pearl of seaside resorts. Although we might have to have a little chat about the pier at some point.

But that’s not why I say this is a good book. Actually, I haven’t said that yet.

It’s a good book! Even without the dedication. Creepily good, even.

Liberty’s Fire

Lydia Syson’s Liberty’s Fire is set during a most interesting historical period. My ignorance showed itself again, but I’d like to think I’ve picked up a few facts about the French Third Republic now.

They had a lot of empires and republics in France back then, and in the history classroom I recall feeling bewildered by them all, and they were hard to keep apart when all you might read is a few paragraphs before you move on to the next Napoleon, or whatever.

Lydia Syson, Liberty's Fire

Liberty’s Fire takes place mainly in 1871 during the brief Paris Commune. Young Zéphyrine is poor and doesn’t even know how to pay for her grandmother’s funeral. She meets violinist Anatole, and they fall in love. Zéphyrine gets involved with the communards and she shows Anatole how things might be. He, in turn, educates her a little in cultural matters, and introduces her to his photographer flatmate Jules, and to Marie, who sings at the theatre.

War and revolution are the main characters in this book. The hopes people have for the commune and the hate and violence from its enemies are striking. There is much bloodshed and cruelty, but also friendships and solidarity, the latter reminding me of the early 1970s.

There is also a tender love story nestling in this book, although not the obvious one between Anatole and Zéphyrine.

This is an excellent history lesson, mixed with romance.

No Mog?

What if there had been no Mog? What if Judith Kerr’s parents hadn’t been allowed to settle in Britain?

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is perhaps not the most harrowing of refugee books, as the Kerr family at least had – some – money and were able to travel together, and Judith wasn’t sent alone on a train with hundreds of other children.

But I’m grateful for the books she’s written. As I am for Eva Ibbotson’s books, and those by many others.

There is one thought I have when I’ve got this far, though, and that is ‘what about the countless marvellous books/paintings/other kinds of work the world could have benefitted from if more people had been able to leave 1930s Germany?


I often say I’m the kind of immigrant that people like or want. I could be wrong. It was never easy being allowed into the UK, but it was possible, and required only a phone call to the British embassy in Stockholm, payment of a fee, a plane ticket to London, a conversation with the immigration officer at Heathrow (who was mainly interested in where the future Resident IT Consultant came from – like was he another ghastly foreigner, importing more of his foreign kind into the country?), another discussion with an unpleasant customs officer, followed much later by a day at Lunar House in Croydon with all the other hopefuls. And much much later an interview with a council employee (who rather suspected I’d be importing all my foreign relatives if she wasn’t strict with me) to get my NI number.

But I got in, and I have stayed.

And here I have read many books about the plight of people in the 1930s who fled their countries and ended up in Britain, and survived because of it. There are the books, and then there are the authors, who wouldn’t be here today were it not for someone getting permission to enter back then. Now there are people here who actually are proud of this, even though there was hostility at the time.

Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness is another foreigner who must have managed this move as well, since he now lives in the UK. He’s blonder than me, so was possibly more welcome.

By now it appears that Patrick has caused hundreds of thousands of pounds to be donated in aid of the refugees, whose fate we see in the news at the moment.

Just think, in 2095 there could be people who will proudly say how happy they are that Britain welcomed these scared and desperate human beings in 2015. Because it’s what good countries do.

(Here is where you can donate to Save the Children and join Derek Landy and John Green.)

What Five Children and It Did Next

My first event on Monday was learning more about Kate Saunders and her much praised book Five Children on the Western Front, which won last year’s Costa. I’ve not read it yet, nor do I know the Edith Nesbit original stories all that well. I read some, but it was a long time ago.

Kate wrote this sequel to Nesbit’s books for the anniversary of WWI last year. She had long ago worked out that those children were just the right age to be caught up in the war that Nesbit didn’t know about when she created their idyllic, magic, free childhood.

Kate Saunders

As a child Kate felt that E Nesbit spoke directly to her, and she reckons that the author ‘put all the seeds down’ and she simply wrote her book, based on what was already there. Kate’s own teenage son died a few years ago, so she feels the far too early loss of young people very strongly.

She had plans for whom to kill off, but at least one character was saved by book reviewer Amanda Craig, who forced her to rethink. And in Monday morning’s school event, it appears Kate managed to make chair Daniel Hahn cry, which just goes to show how books can affect people.

Writing your last letter home, for if you don’t survive the war, features in Kate’s book (this was the moment my first pen decided it had had enough). She said it’s ‘outrageous that young people are sent away to be killed’ and she found that using magic in her story meant that it wasn’t all about life on the home front, but she was able to let the younger children see what went on in the trenches, while they were trying to help the Psammead.

The one thing that doesn’t translate well to a new book like this is the way Nesbit treated servants. She was very un-pc, and Kate has made a point of being nice and kind to ‘her’ servants, in whatever accents you get.

The audience in the Writers Retreat were fairly young, but they had nevertheless read both Kate’s book and the Nesbit ones, and they came up with some really excellent questions. Kate told them she began writing at nine, and that in twenty years’ time it could very well be one of them who would be talking at the book festival.

On the subject of dramatisations of novels, she feels it’d be hard to get in there and beat War Horse. This former actress once had to pay her son to come to the theatre with her.

Kate had to work hard at not revealing who dies in her book, or the fates of any of the characters. The children kept asking, though. And with war you just can’t have anything but a sad ending. It can’t be avoided. The thing for Kate was that there should be kindness, and there’s a strong sense of right and wrong.

There will be no more sequels of other people’s books for a while now. She wanted her book to be true to the feeling of Edith Nesbit. She compared it to considering rewriting the New Testament, which is something you just wouldn’t do.

Generally Kate doesn’t know what the end will be until she gets there. It’s ‘better to make it up as you go along.’ She needs a good start and then she has to have a shape that she strives for. After that she might rip up chapters (computer fashion) to make her book better.