Wren is the story of eponymous young girl – as diminutive as she is strong-willed and brave, and, yes, quite a natural at flying – who, in trying to avoid being shipped off to a Re-Education Institution by a cold-hearted and brooding father, discovers the family’s dark and ancient secret, a secret which quite literally threatens to shake the foundations of their treasured, historical home and their future.
The trials and tribulations, the sheer determination, heart and even recklessness, Wren demonstrates in her efforts to escape her imposed destiny is guaranteed to endear her to every reader; but the narrative arc she plays a part in is even broader and far-reaching than her own story. This book is also about Wales and its mythical story, which leads to the question whether there is still a place in modern children’s literature for castles and mythical beasts, mysterious eggs, flame-breathing dragons, for eccentric hermits with long sticks and ages-old wisdom. Well, undoubtedly with this book, author Lucy Hope succeeds in breathing new life in these themes by spinning them in a pacy, compelling and original story, and weaving them together with a modern perspective, which culminates in an utterly satisfying ending: on both epic and personal levels.
The plot hinges on the apparently fragile heroine, whose pioneering, daredevil mother has died following an attempt to fly a flying machine of her own construction, leaving assisting and complicit sister Efa injured and permanently disabled. Wren is surrounded by a cast of finely etched characters: among them, the cold and distant father, whose grief results in an attempt to stifle Wren’s enterprising and independent spirit; Aunt Efa herself, who’s reneged on the daring and pioneering aspirations she once shared with Wren’s mother and has now withdrawn into a compulsion for fashion and extravagant hats (although, she’s an irrepressible presence on her coal-powered wheelchair); unfeeling brother Tudur, who offers no closeness and love and loyal and humble servant Medwin, who becomes instead a friend and ally. To this cast, as an essential character, must be added the family’s ancient house itself, a time-defying, crumbling fortress with a pulsating secret at its heart, which Wren will ultimately liberate, and which, in turn, will liberate her and her family from the burden of an overbearing past.
Ultimately, this book is, by the author’s own admission, a love letter to Wales. Sweeping and passionate descriptions of the beaches, the sea, the windswept forests of Anglesey, the mighty mountains of North Wales, the figures from folklore and myths, the names of people and places, capture the reader’s imagination and makes it fly. Thanks to the writer’s inspired description, when Wren’s ingeniously built flying machine finally takes to the skies over Anglesey, the reader’s mind’s eye soars with her over the landscapes she loves so much; with our mind’s ear, we hear the mysterious song emanating from the very walls of Wren’s castle.
This story would be an ideal, and very vivid, addition to KS2 schemes of work focussing on Welsh traditional tales and culture. The glossary at the back of the book is very helpful in explaining the ancient Welsh naming system, and also briefly outlining the early story of flight giving an accessible context to Wren’s pilot aspirations. The figure of Wren’s father, who teeters on the verge of being villainous, could raise discussions about the nature of authority, ancestral pride and the burden of preserving power founded on enslavement and oppression; also, of the psychological consequences grief and loss can cause.
Wren serves a significant and timely message too: in reading science and engineering texts, building and flying their own machines, not only Wren, but her mother and aunt too, are worthy precursors and models for the role young girls can and should play in the traditionally male-dominated fields of science and ingenuity. Tudur is stuck-up, academic and subjugated by paternal authority; Wren is fearless, subversive, loves nature and instructions manuals, getting her hands ‘dirty’ and fraternising with the ‘common people’ whose wisdom and experience she trusts and values.
This is truly a worthy story for readers aged 9 and over to enjoy and be inspired by.
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