Reviews /

Midwinter Burning

Authored by Tanya Landman
Illustrated by Tom Clohosy Cole
Published by Walker Books

Tagged , , , , ,

Midwinter Burning by Tanya Landman is a beautifully written WWII evacuee novel with a clever supernatural twist.

In September 1939 Alfie Wright, little for his age and nicknamed ‘Alfie Wrong’ by his classmates, is evacuated from London to the Devon coast. He ends up on a farm with a jolly widow, Auntie Bell, and he finds himself enjoying the different rhythms of rural life. However, he is intrigued by the locals’ mutterings about the annual ‘Midwinter Burning’ that takes place at the ancient stone circle on the cliffs, and even more puzzled by a small boy he meets who wears different clothes and speaks a different language. Nonetheless, a friendship blossoms between Alfie and this boy, Smidge, until Smidge goes missing and Alfie hears worrying rumours about a human sacrifice…

This novel initially unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace: it is about 100 pages before Alfie and Smidge meet for the first time, giving us space to fully enter into Alfie’s experiences as an evacuee. This will be familiar territory for many young readers, but Landman manages to find a fresh angle. One of the loveliest things about her writing is Alfie’s delight in discovering the natural world. He and the other evacuees are shocked to realise that ‘milk comes out of a cow’s bosoms!’ and later on he enjoys learning that ‘apples grew on trees, wool grew on sheep’s backs and eggs came out of hen’s bottoms’. Landman includes gorgeous descriptions of blackberrying, horse-riding and exploring the countryside which will appeal to readers from town and country alike.

In the second half of the novel, the pace picks up and there is more of a sense of jeopardy as Auntie Bell’s warning that ‘some things have to die so that others can live’ takes on an ominous significance. But the darkness surrounding the theme of human sacrifice is balanced with the warmth of Alfie and Smidge’s friendship, and the unwavering kindness and good cheer of Auntie Bell. There are a number of other themes which are sensitively explored, including mistrust of foreigners and attitudes towards mental illness during this time period. Landman’s treatment of bullying is particularly nuanced, as the vulnerabilities of the bullies and bystanders are shown as well as the impact of their actions on Alfie.

This would be a great book to recommend to children who have enjoyed classic evacuee stories like Goodnight Mister Tom or Carrie’s War. It would also work very well as a class reader for older primary or younger secondary children, with scope to discuss a wide range of topics – from the historical backgrounds of evacuation and ancient stone circles, to the themes of loneliness, bullying and friendship. Older readers might also enjoy debating the different attitudes towards sacrifice that are presented – from eating meat to Christianity to Pagan rituals! Above all, it is a consistently engaging story which invites us to care deeply about its characters.