The Secret of the Treasure Keepers, A M Howell’s latest historical novel for children is an atmospheric mystery in which clues are uncovered like small pieces of treasure found in the archeological dig that inspired the story. With family secrets, hidden emotions, and past events gradually uncovered this is a satisfying and ultimately hopeful read.
It is February 1948 and Ruth is waiting anxiously in the British Museum as her archaeologist mother is interviewed for a post in the museum in which she at present volunteers. Ruth’s impulsive decision to answer the ringing telephone results in mother and daughter travelling to an isolated farmhouse in the Fens to investigate some long buried treasure. Once there they discover that the ancient artefacts are only one aspect of the mysterious Rook Farm. Mary who phoned the museum initially is in poor health and struggling to cope with the farm following the death of her husband. Her son, Joe, is terse and unfriendly and land girl Audrey is watchful and quiet and Ruth’s initial enthusiasm for the treasure hunt wanes as the situation is revealed to her. Then a theft, a storm and mounting complications and secrets encourage Ruth to turn detective.
Usually when I am reading and reviewing a book for children I do so with my librarian hat on. Within a few pages of starting The Secret of the Treasure Keepers I was ten years old again. The blend of history, mystery and a likeable character, that feeling of involvement and, importantly, a real sense of time and place was the magic combination that encouraged me to be a reader as a child. I have a feeling that A M Howell is achieving the same for many of today’s children.
Ruth is an appealing character, a sincere, thoughtful and aware only child with an understanding, albeit from a child’s perspective, of her parents’ difficult position . She is determined and focused but a little impulsive as befits a twelve year old. As the story progresses the initial hostility between Ruth and Joe gives way to a gradual understanding and a subsequent blossoming friendship that is endearing and believable.
The atmospheric descriptions of the setting increase both the feelings of involvement and the air of isolation and secrecy. The time period is excellently portrayed for the age of the book’s readership, with the immediate post war years not often depicted in current children’s literature. There are references to WW2 but A M Howell also highlights social history of the time including the shortages, rationing, loss of income and the lingering grief. The plot includes mention of the forthcoming NHS and this starkly brings home its value.
Many life lessons are conveyed with subtlety including grief and coping with loss, family break up, truth and loyalty and how deception, even when well intended, results in complications and stress. This subtlety is also evident in the plot structure as small clues are scattered but not signposted, allowing the reader to ponder and assess the situation and attempt to solve the mounting mysteries as they occur. Although it could be described as a gentle read in some ways, the mention of air raids and the accompanying fear and destruction of lives, homes and businesses brings home the enormity of the impact of war at an appropriate level for the intended readership.
The cover artwork and enticing map by Rachel Corcoran are attractive and there are motifs depicting key elements of the plot included as chapter headings and endings with coins used to mark time lapses within the text too. The overall appearance adds to the book’s shelf appeal.
A M Howell’s own interest in archeology inspired this story and in turn this book could well inspire young archeologists of the future. I particularly liked the thread that bound many of the characters together in this book as they had in common a respect for the past and a need to learn from it. This is a lovely read with a kind and empathetic tone.
Usborne have created a section on their QuickLinks website to pair with The Secret of the Treasure Keepers and after a quick browse I think this would be of great value in the classroom. There are comprehensive sections on World War 2, life immediately post-war, the Land Girls, farming and the Fens, and a look at archeology and the dig that inspired this story. In her author’s note A M Howell also suggests that her readers may be interested in finding out more about The Young Archeologists’ Club for 8-16 year olds.
I should like to thank Fritha Lindqvist and Usborne Books for providing my review copy. The Secret of the Treasure Keepers is published on 31st March and is available to pre-order/purchase online at Bookshop. If this book appeals you may also like to try The Mystery of The Night Watchers another book by this author that I thoroughly enjoyed.