When German bombs begin to fall on London, Cecily Lockwood, her older brother Jeremy, and their mother leave the city for the safety of the family’s country seat, Heron Hall. On the way there, Cecily impulsively insists they also take in an evacuee child, and so calm, intrepid May, more grown at ten than Cecily is at twelve, joins them at the Hall. The country peace can be deceiving, however: Cecily frets that May proves to be an independent being rather than a grateful toy, Jeremy seethes at being forced to flee when he wants to help defend his home and country, and the girls are intrigued but troubled by the strange boys they find hiding in the ruins of nearby Snow Castle. As Uncle Peregrine, owner of Heron Hall, spins the tale of the fallen stronghold, it becomes clear that centuries-old stories and centuries-old savagery have surprising relevance to the children’s current lives.
The scenario here is familiar and even cozy: a country house, well-heeled children, a mid-century adventure, and possible ghosts, and even the wartime atmosphere is pleasantly adventurous at the Lockwoods’ safe distance. With skilled layering, though, Australian author Hartnett embraces this scenario in a way that its fans will appreciate but also subtly tweaks it, making classic pleasures and contemporary judgment strangely comfortable partners. Her writing is superb, carrying echoes of Austen but also touched with a perceptive yet incisive wit that recalls Muriel Spark, and the book stealthily alludes to the Lockwoods’ considerable privilege and shades its dismantling. Cecily (blessed with “well-fed certainty”) has never encountered a situation that her beloved father can’t solve and sees no reason why the war will be any different; Jeremy both struggles against the luxury of safety (and the “agony of being insignificant”) and the threat to his future enjoyment of the life he has expected; Jeremy’s eventual break with parental control shatters his mother not just because of maternal anxiety but also because this is the first time she’s failed to get her way. Similarly, the third-person narration focalizes through Cecily but wryly and persistently observes her limitations (“Cecily had taken to the role of instructor with ease, and found it hardly any bother to be constantly criticising and instructing”), a technique that heightens her contrast with self-possessed May, whose inner thoughts remain uncatalogued, and whose secret remains hidden (from Cecily, at least) until just before the end.
An underlying theme of humanity’s lust for power and its terrible consequences plays out most overtly in Uncle Peregrine’s story: told in episodes, with archetypal terms for characters rather than names, it’s actually the tale of Richard III and the young princes in the Tower, who are rumored to have ended their days at Snow Castle. The interpolated tale becomes gripping in its own right, and it [End Page 347] converges with the World War II story in places both expected and unexpected, with the long-gone victim princes perhaps able to make their final peace with the help of Cecily and May, and possibly providing one last connection for May with her beloved late father. Yet other themes rise strongly as well: Cecily and Jeremy begin to realize the human limitations of their parents; Cecily begins to reach just a little past her comfortable complacency; all of the characters face the reality of change in both their loved ones and the world they know.
Together, it’s an atmospheric concoction, haunted in the nicest possible ways, and readable at various levels of sophistication (and also suitable for an ongoing readaloud). Fans of classic children’s literature will delight in seeing a familiar plot so richly interpreted, and sharp readers will appreciate the provocative new resonance under the old story. (See p. 360 for publication information.)