An evacuee story with a difference. This beautifully told, tender story of two young brothers, a mystery, and a community that holds secrets of its own captivated me from the opening scenes to its satisfying conclusion. It is really rather special.
Stories set in wartime are popular with both adults and children. Perhaps the reason is that the reader is able to witness people overcoming the worst of situations and this reassures us of the capabilities and strength of the human spirit in adversity. With children’s books in particular we also read them safe in the knowledge that there will be if not a perfect happy ending at least there will be a hopeful one. Children’s books set in World War 2 featuring evacuees are popular because young readers can relate to the characters and even though the situation is unknown to them they do understand the reactions and emotions. Modern classics such as Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden and Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian have been staples of the classroom for many years. To that list you can now add this beautiful debut by Lesley Parr.
It is September 1939 and twelve year old Jimmy and his little brother Ronnie are evacuated from London to a small Welsh mining village. It could not be more different to the life the two boys know. They have become outsiders and despite the care he receives from the couple who take them in for Jimmy in particular this is difficult. Then he discovers a skull hidden in a tree and frightened by what this means Jimmy needs a friend to share his secret with and to solve the mystery. Help comes from an unlikely source and gradually Jimmy uncovers secrets from the past that will change his attitude and his understanding of what home, family and belonging truly mean.
From the opening pages I was drawn to the character of Jimmy. At twelve years old he is at that awkward stage on the cusp of adolescence but fiercely protective of his six year old brother. His sense of responsibility to Ronnie and his loyalty to his own family so far away is touching and captured and conveyed kindly by Lesley Parr. The scene where the young evacuees stand waiting to be chosen by the people of Llanbryn, so reminiscent in some ways to the familiar fear when teams are being chosen for sport, conveys great emotion in a language and manner that feels so true to the feelings of children. From that moment on I cared about these boys and cared deeply. I think young readers will do so too.
The knowledge and love of communities such as the village of Llanbryn is evident in the writing. There is beauty in the landscape of looming mountains and the valley in which the village rests. This is a community where everyone knows each other with all the advantages and disadvantages that this brings. The adult characters are not mere stereotypes or pushed to the background, these are well rounded, intriguing flesh and blood people. Gwen and Alun, the couple with whom the boys are living stayed with me just as much as the boys after I finished reading.
However it is the boys who take centre stage for much of the story and the relationship between Jimmy and Ronnie is believable and moving. Little Ronnie is open and trusting, he relishes the new opportunities and with the support of his big brother settles in to their new life. For Jimmy this is much harder. He is resentful and resists viewing Gwen and Alun Thomas as ‘family’ and their house as ‘home’. Although many in the community are welcoming some view the children as outsiders and blame them for events for which they are not responsible. Of course this type of prejudice is with us today and this story would encourage further thought and discussion about the true meaning of home and community. It also depicts the changing friendships that children make and illustrates particularly well how one should not always make assumptions about people. There are moments of heartbreak but these are balanced with the feelings of love, hope and the importance of brotherhood throughout the story. There is much to think about in this kind and perceptive book.
Jimmy is at the heart of this story and I loved him; a wonderful narrator with a voice that speaks to the child within us all. This reminded me very much of stories my own Dad tells me of wartime Liverpool. The Valley of Lost Secrets is a story that feels so real that part of me wants it to be true.
Thank you Lesley Parr and Bloomsbury Children’s Books for sending me my review copy, I will treasure it. The Valley of Lost Secrets is published on 7th January 2021.