Book Review – Letters From the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

Letters From The Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

When selecting books for Reading for Pleasure in its widest sense, and by that I am referring to fulfilment as well as enjoyment, you need look no further than the delightful writing of Emma Carroll. You may be familiar with the award winning Frost Hollow Hall or the more recent In Darkling Wood or Strange Star. Well, Emma’s fifth novel is every bit as wonderful as its predecessors. Easy to devour in one sitting, it is in fact impossible to put down, as she hooks you immediately with the explosive opening and subsequent mystery to solve.

Set in the main in Budmouth Point – Devon, the story is told in first person narrative by an evacuee as she meets the residents of Budmouth and becomes immersed in the plight of a group of Jewish refugees.

The beautifully crafted plot is testament to Carroll’s skill as a storyteller. There are several extracts that could be used as story starters or to open a discussion such as when Olive finds a suitcase washed up on the beach:

“This suitcase belonged to someone. And that someone had packed up their books and clothes and toothbrush, much like we had, and left their home far behind. I wondered if they felt frightened, unsure of where they were going and what sort of welcome they’d receive when they got there.… (p.158)

This is historical fiction at its best and would sit nicely alongside wartime study including the subjects of evacuation, rationing, use of animals, spies, codebreaking and even military tactics alongside ill-treatment of the Jewish population. The highly relevant themes of conquering prejudice and social acceptance would also make this title an excellent choice for exploring empathy (p.194). When a German pilot crash lands in Budmouth it provokes a mix of reactions among the residents. It takes a strong character to point out he is someone’s son or someone’s father.

Placards could be made using key quotations from the story: ”we won’t be beaten by hate”, “careless talk costs lives” or “united we are stronger” related to current social groups and contemporary situations East European refugees. These could be used as stimulus for discussion relate to both wartime and contemporary situations.

The story includes several strong female characters – the feisty older sister Sukie who wants to tackle Hitler head on, the troubled Esther whose antisocial behaviour is a result of her traumatic experiences at the hands of the Nazis and most interesting is Queenie – a stoic, no frills woman who appears hard and uncaring on the surface but as her story unfolds we see a compassion and determination to fight the enemy in her own quietly dignified way. She would make a great comparison with Tom Oakley from Goodnight Mr Tom. When the reader discovers the reason for her collection of clocks stuck on ten passed two it offers the perfect opportunity to explore W.H. Auden’s Stop All the Clocks or the popular 19Thcentury song My Grandfather’s Clock.

The male characters support the plot, most notably Ephraim Pengilly the mysterious lighthouse keeper, who has a reception from the locals equal to Jonathan Toomey or Joanne Spyri’s Uncle Alp (Heidi’s cantankerous grandfather) and also the self-important Mr Spratt whose attempts to belittle others and victimise Ephraim are met with a unified defiance by the community.

There is a wonderful Spartacus like scene where the citizens of Budmouth each confess to a minor offence in order to make it impossible for the police to arrest the lighthouse keeper for not logging the arrival of the boat of refugees. Another opportunity to draw in another text such as The Red Prince by Charlie Roscoe (p251)

The emerging friendship between the protagonist Olive and Esther – a Jewish girl sent to live in Devon through the Kindertransport rescue scheme lends itself to exploring perspective through diary writing or role play. The turning point for the girls is when Esther shares experiences from her past and Olive is lost for words.

“Anything I might’ve said stayed stuck in my throat. There weren’t words for it, not really. So I put my arm through Esther’s and we sat, gazing out to sea, two old enemies who were, at last, friends. She was right – it was her story to tell. And I could think of plenty who might benefit from hearing it.”

The celebratory feel at the end of the story is as much about absent loved ones as those present at the tea party but it leaves the reader with a spirit of hope and optimism.

Like Sonya Harnett’s Children of the King, this book doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of war yet it focuses on the humanity displayed in times of great hardship.

A springboard to so many other stories makes it a perfect class read that could work in Years 4-6.

If you would benefit from an accessible text that is a worthy alternative or stepping stone to Carrie’s War, with a more contemporary feel, then look no further than Letters from the Lighthouse.


By Caroline Bradley, Just Imagine Libraries Advisor