Sonya Hartnett you know you are in the safe hands of a master story teller. Sonya Hartnett seems to get right inside her characters and landscapes.
Most of the action takes place in the final chapters of this book but I did enjoy the slow build up. I agree with Maurice Saxby when he says "the characterization, free of present-day-gimmicks, has all the solid qualities of an English novel at its best. The same can be said of the style, in that every page has a telling phrase, a startling image that carries weighty implications."
The setting for this book in London in World War Two with the blitz about to begin. Cecily Lockwood aged twelve, her brother Jeremy aged fourteen and their mother Heloise leave London for the safety of the North country moving to the estate Heron Hall the home of Uncle Peregrine brother to their father who stays behind in London to assist (in some undisclosed way) with the war effort.
Travelling on the train with the family are a large number of children who are being evacuated out of London and sent to live with strangers in the country. Here is a description of the station :
"The village station was usually a lonely place, having been built too ambitiously for the town it served; normally five or six souls wandered the oversized platform, and the distances between them could be so vast that they might each have been waiting for different trains on different days. .... but perhaps the grandiose station had been built, so long ago, for this singular day."
Cecily watches the bewildered children as they are herded off the train and into the local town hall and then she sees the children being led one or two at a time away from the town hall by different women and a few men. "Cecily's heart stretched its tether" and she asks her mother if they can take a child, an evacuee, to Heron Hall. Jeremy joins in with rational arguments supporting this idea and so they go into the town hall and Cecily 'selects a child' a little girl called May Bright aged ten.
The three children settle into life at Heron Hall and one day the girls wander off to explore the ruins of a castle which is on the estate. While they are there they meet two boys and a sharp reader will immediately see that things are not quite as they seem. At the same time Uncle Peregrine has agreed to tell the children the story of this castle. It is the story of King Richard and power and two small boys who are locked in a tower - perhaps you recognise this story from history.
This is a story primarily about Cecily, who is a fairly precocious little girl but ultimately it is Jeremy undergoes a transformation. As a fourteen year old boy he is desperate to be useful to the war effort but of course too young. He is a very intelligent boy and he feels trapped by life at his uncle's estate. He wants to fight, he wants to be with his father in London and above all he wants to be part of the action so he can understand this war.
Here is an example to show how Sonya Harnett really gets into the psychology of her characters. Heloise becomes so furious with Jeremy one evening she threatens to send him away to boarding school. Cecily finds her brother and tries to comfort him :
"In common with most siblings, Jeremy and Cecily Lockwood had a thousand grievances against one another. But, again in common, for one to realise the other was hurt roused a lion-like concern and sympathy ... Despair had overtaken him so thoroughly that he couldn't make the traditional denial of anything being wrong. He wiped his face but the tears kept dropping as they will when a heart has received a deep wound."
Here is an excellent review from the Sydney Morning Herald, one in the Age and here is an interview with Sonya Hartnett about this book - I recommend reading this. This is a book for Upper Primary students and their parents and after reading this one you should look for Midnight Zoo and The Silver Donkey.