When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle is an extraordinary story told with compassion and understanding. Dealing with the darkest of human emotions; anger, loss, grief, fear and humiliation it shows us that these can be overcome with love, understanding and forgiveness if we can only learn to allow it. A book with a powerful impact that will move readers and start discussions, it is a story I will not forget.
Set in 1941 this World War 2 story opens with twelve year old Joseph arriving at a city station as others his age are travelling in the opposite direction as evacuees. He has been sent to stay with Mrs F. a woman as gruff as Joseph is angry. She lives alone and the only things she appears to love are her rundown zoo and one of its occupants, a huge silverback gorilla named Adonis. Joseph is then sent to the local school were a small number of children are still being taught and his difficulties mount. As days and weeks pass and the city is battered by bombs gradually secrets are revealed and cautious friendships are made. However Joseph still struggles to lower his guard and allow others to reach him until eventually he learns a lesson in trust from Adonis.
Inspired by a true story When the Sky Falls depicts a wartime setting that is frequently used in fiction for children and teens and yet this is at its heart a story about the struggles of one boy to make sense of his emotions and the blows life has dealt him. All the characters have experienced loss in some form but Joseph adds guilt to his suffering. Experience has taught him that life hurts so he has built up barriers to protect himself and it is hard for him to admit that he needs help and almost impossible to ask for it. Phil Earle writes with great understanding of the complexity of human nature and his characters are real flesh and blood people to the reader. Mrs F is a woman of few words but huge determination and Syd, the girl who helps Mrs F at the zoo and goes to school with Joseph, has an admirable air of positivity despite her own loss. And then there is Adonis the massive silverback gorilla who so intrigues Joseph. The growing bond between animal and boy is breathtaking in its power on the page. Sometimes as I read I marvel at the magic of words to create images and the manner in which those images create an emotional response in the reader. This book does that with an intensity that is at times heart breaking and at others hopeful of the ability of kindness and understanding to heal.
Joseph himself is unable to read and this plays a large part in his problems. Although not actually mentioned in the story it is clear that this is due to dyslexia and Phil Earle addressed this in his author’s note. Although thankfully dyslexia is now better understood than it was in the 1940s the challenges that children still face and the determination needed to overcome them are still there.
This is a beautiful story. Despite the anger, the gritty darkness of some aspects and the sadness it is profoundly moving and hopeful in its depiction of learning how to love and to accept love. The gradual build up to the climax of the last fifty pages is vivid, powerful and deeply affecting. I confess to sitting in stunned silence as I turned the final page. This is, I think, quite outstanding and deserves to become a book as well loved as those classic World War 2 stories such as Goodnight, Mr Tom.
When the Sky Falls is published by Andersen Press on 3rd June and will be available at your local bookshop or online.
Earlier this year I reviewed another book by Phil Earle which I would also wholeheartedly recommend. The Dog that Saved the World (Cup) is for a slightly younger age group and is published by Barrington Stoke so accessible to a wide range of readers. If you are looking for another title set in World War 2 featuring children and evacuees I have enjoyed both The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr and Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll.