Voices from the past

29th July 2005 at 01:00
Linda Newbery enjoys novels with historical settings

Mudlark. By John Sedden. Puffin pound;4.99.

The Foreshadowing. By Marcus Sedgwick. Orion Children's Books pound;8.99.

I, Coriander. By Sally Gardner. Orion Children's Books pound;8.99.

Hitler's Canary. By Sandi Toksvig. Doubleday pound;8.99.

Coyote Moon. By Martin Booth. Corgi pound;4.99.

Redemption. By Julie Chibbaro. Simon Schuster pound;5.99.

The first two novels both have First World War settings, very different in style and treatment. Mudlark, set in Portsmouth, begins with the over-used device of a narrator deciding to "write it all down", but quickly engages the reader with its wit and vivacity. James and Reg, retrievers of coins thrown into tidal mud, find a human skull; events become enjoyably far-fetched when James suspects the King himself of being Jack the Ripper, indulging in a killing spree on each local visit, while larky humour is offset by a sense of the wider adult world when a Portsmouth ship is sunk with all hands. Its appealing cover should get Mudlark into the hands of readers who wouldn't usually be drawn to historical settings.

The Foreshadowing's title and presentation strike a far more ominous note.

Sasha has presentiments of others' deaths, a dubious gift which intensifies during the war years, when she becomes a nurse; soon, a vision of her brother's death sends her to France, intent on changing the course of events. But if the future is pre-ordained, what can she do? Written in short, numbered sections, a device which will help young readers through unfamiliarity with period and subject-matter, the story counts down to what seems inevitable, but there's a clever trick here. Some of Marcus Sedgwick's most effective writing is in the dream-like episodes involving a raven, giving the war scenes a mythic significance.

Beginning immediately after Charles I's execution, I, Coriander combines fairy-tale elements with reality. Coriander's father remarries soon after the death of his wife. Maud, as cruel and manipulative as many a stepmother of folk tale, imposes Puritan severity on a reluctant household. The story switches back and forth to another world, and to dreams within dreams, where we encounter Queen Rosmore, who has evil designs on the shadow Coriander's mother left behind. Caught between two sets of loyalties, Coriander is given an ending to please the most romantically-inclined reader. This is a beautifully produced book, with a traditional charm.

In Hitler's Canary, Sandi Toksvig bases Bamse's story on her own father's experiences in Denmark during the Nazi occupation. The division into acts and scenes reflects the theatrical experience of Bamse's parents, and the clearly-drawn characters fill various roles: resistance fighter; collaborator; Jewish emigre; and a young homosexual who is viewed with suspicion by Bamse's uncle but performs an act of understated heroism.

Bamse must make difficult choices: should he follow his father and uncle in accepting the German presence, or take brother Orlando's lead by joining the partisans? Hitler's Canary was the nickname given to Denmark for its compliance during the Occupation, but Toksvig shows the bravery of many Danes in rescuing the vast majority of the Jewish population by smuggling them to safety. Hitler's Canary gives a striking picture of everyday life under Nazi occupation, illuminating an aspect of the war that will be unfamiliar to most readers.

Coyote Moon is set in Texas during the American Civil War. Daniel, in search of his English parents, is befriended by ranch owner Matt Gravitt and ends up helping to drive 50 cattle through hostile country. There's no shortage of action, but each danger is quickly surmounted, each difficulty resolved, and Daniel never faces a moral dilemma. Even the situation he's in - backing the Confederates - is too easily glossed by a reference to Gravitt not owning slaves. Where this story succeeds, though, is in giving a vivid sense of terrain, and of the importance of learning wits-awake survival tactics in a setting where few people can be trusted.

Simon Schuster's young adult list continually impresses. Julie Chibbaro's Redemption tells of migrants to America almost a century before the Mayflower Pilgrims set sail, a story springing from Chibbaro's fascination with tales of white Indians, who may or may not have been early European colonists.

Lily and her mother, religious outcasts in search of Lily's father, face harsh conditions throughout the voyage, but when landfall is reached, there are fresh terrors to confront. Alone in the forest, Lily is rescued by the Nooh tribe, and is astonished to meet her father, who's "gone native" and acquired a new wife. If Lily stays, adapting to strange new customs, is she betraying her mother? The story is alive with interest and incident, and captures the sense of venturing into a vast New World, frightening but beautiful.

Linda Newbery's novel At the Firefly Gate is now published in Dolphin paperback

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