Grand opening;Children's books

19th February 1999 at 00:00
HEROES. By Robert Cormier. Hamish Hamilton pound;10.99.

WITCHY. By Ann Phillips. Oxford University Press pound;5.99.

DARK THREAD. By Pauline Chandler. Oxford University Press pound;5.99.

My name is Francis Joseph Cassavant and I have just returned to Frenchtown in Monument and the war is over and I have no face."

This is the first sentence of Robert Cormier's new novella and if anyone finds a better opening sentence in the near future, I'd like to hear about it. It hits you right between the eyes and tells you almost everything you need to know.

Even the name is a kind of shorthand: Francis Joseph is likely to be a Catholic and so indeed he turns out to be. He has returned to the town he grew up in and is a war hero who has received the Silver Star for falling on a grenade and saving the rest of his company. But here in Frenchtown, he is hiding his identity. Why? And is he really a hero? He is looking for Larry La Salle, and for Nicole, whom he loved before he ran away to enlist. What will happen when he finds them? Is he seeking revenge, or salvation, or both?

It would be a pity to give away the ending; indeed, some may be disappointed that the story finishes as it does, with the hope of redemption through writing the novella that we have been reading. The book is a model of economy. In a text that is not even 100 pages long, Cormier manages to speak of war, love, friendship, jealousy, death and loyalty. He also sketches in an entire community so well that we feel that we, too, grew up there. Francis is hideously disfigured, and the early parts of the book are hard to read without flinching, but in the end we are forced to look, and to think. This is a wonderful book, an example of what can be achieved in the field of literature for young adults.

Witchy by Ann Phillips shares with the Cormier a plain, strong style and, like Heroes, raises moral issues in the context of its period, bringing the Fens in the 1890s vividly to life. Aggie sees things, and is driven from her home because of it. Phillips displays for us a whole gallery of characters, some of whom we're glad we'll never meet.

Dark Thread by Pauline Chandler is the time-slip story of a girl learning to accept personal tragedy through her weaving. Kate, the heroine, feels herself responsible for her mother's death, and it is only through sharing the wisdom of another age that she begins to see her life as a cloth with a dark thread woven through it. These novels are not in the same class as Heroes, but they are solid, enjoyable and interesting.

Adele Geras

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