Inspired by the true story of one man who might have stopped World War Two, this is a must-read for fans of this master of historical fiction.
It’s 1940 and Barney and his mum are on the train out of Coventry. They’re escaping to the country having lost everything in the city’s bombing. Sadly trouble seems to follow them and their train is attacked by German fighter planes. The train manages to find shelter in a tunnel but that only makes matters worse for young Barney because he’s terrified of the dark. Luck is, however, finally on their side and the stranger in their carriage is able to provide a much needed distraction. The stranger tells the story of a young solider in World War One, including the moment when he could have prevented the Second World War.
Inspired by a true story and spanning two World Wars, this is classic Morpurgo. If I’m honest it’s not quite in the same league as his outstanding war stories, notably Private Peaceful or War Horse. It is, however, a gripping story that will keep children turning those pages until the very end. I certainly couldn’t put it down and read it in a single sitting.
The opening, set in 1940, will bring the blitz alive for children. In an age-appropriate way, we understand the terror of those sheltering from the bombs over Coventry. We also gain an insight into how it feels to lose your home and everything in it. Barney, for example, loses his treasured red bus, his toy soldiers and his special cockle-shell from the beach at Bridlington. Indeed, it is the details that give the story impact and I found the sections where Grandpa and Barney search for Grandpa’s horse, Big Black Jack, particularly poignant.
While this brief World War Two section is strong, the story really takes off when the stranger begins his story of World War One. Readers are easily transported back to 1914. These sections are moving but the structure – with events being described by the stranger – makes this slightly less immediate that some of Morpurgo’s other war stories. Fortunately the clever plot goes a long way to make up for this. (Sorry, I can’t say more without spoiling the book for you.)
The stranger talks a lot about the sketches that the hero of his story made as a solider during the First World War and I particularly enjoyed seeing these in Michael Foreman’s illustrations. The other illustrations also add to the text: when I finished the book I was compelled to flick back through in order to really admire the artwork.
Overall, this is an excellent book by the master of historical fiction. If you enjoyed this, you really must check out Morpurgo’s other war stories. Why not try War Horse, The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips by Michael Morpurgo, or get yourself a copy of my personal favourite Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo.
Date: August 2016
Publisher: Harper Collins
Author: Michael Morpurgo
Review first published on The Bookbag