Five Children on the Western Front, by Kate Saunders
first published in the UK, 2014; American edition 2016 by Delacorte Press
Today is Veterans’ Day. Remembrance Day in other parts of the world. Set apart due to the armistice that brought a halt to the savagery of the war that never did end all wars, World War 1.
Two years ago now, the world marked the anniversary of the beginning of that war with solemn ceremonies and stunning art installations, and in the UK, with the publication of this most-British of books.
Poppy installation at the Tower of London, 2014
For those of you who have never met the Psammead — that curmudgeonly sand fairy unearthed from a gravel pit by four siblings one day ’round about the turn of the century — do not pass go, do not collect $200 until you remedy that by reading E. Nesbit’s classic fantasy, Five Children and It. Today’s book will truly not make sense until you’ve made their acquaintance there.
For all the rest of you who cherish your memories of Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, and the Lamb, who were once as beautiful as the day, and sprouted wings, and fought their way out of a besieged castle — this bittersweet addition to their chronicles is for you.
The five children have grown up a bit as this story launches in 1914. Cyril, the oldest, is 21 years old, while the youngest, Edith, is 9, having not been born during the other adventures. World War I is breaking out and along with the rest of the world, the lives of the five (actually, six) children are about to irrevocably change. Cyril is off to fight, and soon enough Robert will join him. Anthea will take up her part in a hospital, leaving just the youngest three at home. The rediscovery of the Psammead, though, allows those three to see the Great War much more closely and appallingly than they perhaps really care to.
VAD nurses, World War One
This incredible story won the Costa Children’s Book Award, a prestigious award in the UK, and I’m so glad it has made its way over to our side of the pond. Saunders has not only served well the legacy of Nesbit, but has written a phenomenal, heartbreaking perspective on the war itself and life in Britain circa 1914-1918. Women’s suffrage, women vying to be allowed into medical schools, and class distinctions à la Downton Abbey, are important throughout the account. Peter Pan is playing in the theater and Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated. Additionally, Saunders weaves in the mythology of ancient Sumer as the Psammead grapples with the long displeasure of Princess Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad. What a rich tapestry!
The children’s encounter with the war is emotionally potent, though Saunders spares us the degree of grim detail she might have included. Conditions at the front are discussed, as well as the fate of the wounded and the terrible new weaponry of the war, but none of this is intensely gruesome. More potent and weighty is the grievous reality of the losses of dear friends, young men, brothers. The sorrowing hammers us much more than the violence.
If you’re looking for a fresh account of all that World War I was, this book is top-notch. Excellent read in an unusual genre — historical fantasy — for ages 10 and up.