I loved this book. A wonderful historical novel set in Victorian Scotland, a central character who is both endearing and relatable and a setting brought vividly to life.
It is 1861 on the remote Scottish island of Tornish and crofter’s daughter Birdie lives with her father, two elder sisters and younger brother. Despite the hard life that they live and the death of the children’s mother several years ago. Bridie and her family share a happy life caring for each other and their friends and neighbours. The kindly Laird, who owns the land on which his tenants live and work, is a fair and honourable man with a soft spot for Bridie. However Bridie, or Little Bird as she is known, hides a secret dream, a dream of escape to far away America, a new life and adventure. However this is not to be as her father made a promise to his wife that the family would stay together on the island for ever. A settled and secure life but far from the exciting world of which Bridie dreams.
A sudden tragedy shatters their lives when a new Laird and his family arrive on Tornish and instantly make changes. A cruel man, with an equally unpleasant friend and a wife and daughter who treat the islanders with contempt, his treatment of Bridie’s family has a dramatic impact. Little Bird’s dreams of flying away to adventure are changed in a way she never envisaged when they are all forced to flee from their home in the hope of finding safety elsewhere.
The joy of a well told story is that it is able to transport you to another world and make you feel as though you are part of it. Within a few pages Bridie’s world became real to me and this, I think, is what makes good historical fiction for children so important. It provides a way of viewing those who lived so long ago as people just like us. Bridie is a fabulous character; born with a weakened arm and leg she refuses to let this restrict her in any way and roams her beloved island with her friend Will, climbing high crags and savouring life. She is stubborn but thoughtful, a dreamer but willing to work hard too. Karen McCombie brings this young girl to life for the reader and for a little while we walk with her on her eventful journey. Social history is made relevant, real and exciting for children in this way. The details of Victorian life are fascinating and the marked contrast between the social classes is starkly depicted. Interesting details of daily life and historical content are included without ever slowing the story down or feeling like a lesson.
Bridie misses her beloved mother very much and frequently throughout the book she ponders what her mother would have advised when faced with some of the situations that Little Bird encounters. I found this aspect touching and at times very moving, particularly when Bridie feels as though she is being guided by her mother. There is a lot of love in this story. Love for family, love of home, love for friends and love for those who need help. It also touches on the themes of poverty and forced migration and illustrates that there are situations when people may have little choice other than to flee in search of a safe haven. This book encourages us to care and I think that Karen McCombie’s Little Bird deserves to fly high. A wonderful read and highly recommended for readers of about 9+. This book is the first in a series and I am very much looking forward to revisiting Bridie’s world again soon.
Thank you to Karen McCombie and Nosy Crow for my proof copy. The published book has a striking cover designed by Jasu Hu and features a map by Hannah Horn. All children’s books should have maps, I love them!