'Away from the front, where the supply lines ran. . . you could hear skylarks over the fields. Soldiers remarked how strange it was that the birds should be there, but in fact the birds had been there for centuries. The really strange thing was that the soldiers were there.' (p 194)
100 years on
Here is another of my occasional digressions from my usual practice of reading and reviewing fantasy books. I simply had to write this one up.
Often, when I finish a good book, I trawl about for ages trying to find the 'right' one to read next. The last time this happened, though, was 11th November, the exact one hundredth anniversary of the 1918 armistice, so it seemed appropriate to pull out from my reading pile this historical novel, charting a family's lives through what we now call WWI. I did not regret the decision for a minute. It is not only a truly wonderful but also a very important one, one that will certainly feature amongst my children's books of the year.
The cover of The Skylarks' War, by talented Dawn Cooper, is a telling reflection of its contents. It presents a striking evocation of a bygone era, capturing beautifully a colour palette of it period and bringing immediately to mind those attractive prints of old railway posters, now found on many a wall calendar. Yet the image is not exactly a holiday advertisement; the farewell it depicts has an air of poignancy, especially in view of the uniform of the departing figure, and, indeed, the youth of those waving him off.
Living through a war
The book inside this cover is just as evocative as its jacket, just as alluring and every bit as poignant. The story follows Clarry, together with her brother Peter, and some of their friends, relatives and neighbours, through from her birth in 1902 to sometime in the 1920s. However, the greatest focus is on the war years themselves. It is a story about growing up, about a time of war and, most particularly, about growing up in a time of war.
Clarry's family situation is totally credible, even if it is not at all a conventional one, and the story of her childhood and youth is amazingly gripping for what is essentially a narrative of day to day domestic incident. Part of this engagement comes from the utter likability of its principal characters and our consequent empathy with what they have to endure and overcome. Part too comes from the way the war gradually impinges more and more on the lives of people we have quickly grown to care about. Time before the war is epitomised for Clarry by idyllic holidays staying with her grandparents in Cornwall. Soon, though, the presence of the war becomes almost a character in the tale. Its influence is initially peripheral, almost incidental. In its early days there is little real understanding of what is happening and will happen, even a naive romanticism about it.
''Shells' was another word that became more often used. 'Shells' and 'shellfire'. Always when Clarry heard it , her mind jumped to the fans and spirals and fragile treasures she had collected on the Cornish beaches, summer after summer . . . 'A rain of falling shells': Clarry caught the phrase one day as she hurried home from school. It sounded entrancing.' (p 109)
However, the darkness of war begins to creep in, on Peter, as on the others, particularly once their beloved older friend Rupert, companion from the blissful stays in Cornwall, enlists despite being under age.
'It was hard to hide the despair he felt, for Clarry in the comfortless house, for ridiculous Rupert, for summers that were so far away, for all the Ruperts and Clarrys caught up in this hardly understood war.' (p 106)
As the book develops, the author does not shrink from war's horrors, or from the devastatingly grim realities of the trenches. It impinges devastatingly upon her characters, as indeed it does on us, her readers. This is strong, brave writing, disturbing and moving as we share with its characters an incomprehensible nightmare.
'It was a war where absolutely nothing made sense.' (p 194)
Yet Clarry's quiet passion and remarkable inner strength may well see her through, and us with her.
When I first picked up this book I imagined it was going to be about a family with the surname Skylark. (Collectively, 'The Skylarks'. You know, rather like 'The Larkins' in Darling Buds of May), But Clarry and her family are actually Penroses. This title turns out to be much more subtle, more thoughtful, that I initially thought it. In fact you need to look quite hard to find the skylarks. Poignantly, they are mentioned once, singing above the battlefields of France. There is one further mention of the actual birds as a feature of Clarry's Cornish summers. Perhaps most significantly, her grandfather uses the term once to refer to his visiting grandchildren. The book's key characters are skylarks, if not by name. Ultimately, they rise above the battles, above the war.
However, the war itself is not the only thing they rise above. Hilary McKay's novel treats of many things, many important things. The book rightly, but often disturbingly, reflects the attitudes of that period towards the role and potential of women. It highlights how many opportunities were considered 'only for boys', and the fact that Clarry determinedly pushes on through all this to get herself a higher education and a potential career is inspirational, providing a wonderful role model as well as a harbinger of the women's struggles to come. Similarly the character of Peter's schoolfriend Simon, sensitive, caring and wildly in love with the slightly older Rupert, is handled with wonderful sensitivity. We are brought up hard against more hurtful prejudice of the times.
'Yes of course (Simon gets laughed at at school) . . . and so does anyone who isn't a silly, grinning, sports-playing, book-hating, first-year-tormenting, prefect-grovelling, hair-parted-on-the-right ---' (p 122)
Yet Hilary McKay contrasts these hateful attitudes most movingly with the empathy and understanding for Simon that she rightly engenders in us as readers.
An abiding humanity
It is a book that champions the rights of both girls and boys to be who they are and become who they can become. It shows how far attitudes and opportunities have moved in the last hundred years, but also, by implication, flags up, too, how far we still have to go. There are just too many instances where the prejudices of 1918 still sound all too like some we might encounter, in at least some quarters, today.
This telling story also has much to imply about the role fathers need to play in their children's lives, about the importance of educational opportunity and, indeed, about the power of books to help us survive and grow. More than anything though, more than being about the Great War, more than about girls' abilities, rights and needs, more than the rights and needs of sensitive, emotional and gay boys, this book is about how kindness and love can transcend even the most grotesque of horrors. And that is a wonderful message for any children's book. It is truly heartwarming. May it warm yours and that of many, many children.
The book is published in the USA as Love to Everyone, a reference to Rupert's usual sign off in his letters home from the Western Front. I am delighted that such a fine novel is available over there too, although I think the UK title is, on this occasion, by far the better.