The author of Things a Bright Girl Can Do returns with a story set in December 1919, during the aftermath of the First World War, and once more brings social history to life through the experiences of characters that are easy to empathise and engage with. Family secrets, romance and post-war trauma, combine in this immersive tale full of warmth and poignancy. History is not only about the big events, the battles and the politics; history is also about ordinary people trying to live their lives well in sometimes extremely difficult circumstances. This story is about those ordinary people and will reveal to today’s teen readers the issues, expectations, difficulties, hopes and dreams of a generation of young people from one hundred years ago.
When Margot’s fiancé, Harry, was reported missing in action on the Western Front all her hopes and plans for the future were shattered and worse still she had a secret that could destroy both her reputation and that of her family. Despite the heartbreak, it causes her Margot hides this secret from others. Miraculously Harry is found as a prisoner of war. As his return home to his family for Christmas draws nearer, Margot is faced with a decision that she fears will render any hope of rekindling their romance doomed to failure. The balance between historical detail and personal story is perfectly executed in this gentle and beautifully written story. As a lover of historical fiction, this is reminiscent for me of Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War, although with a different focus of theme it conveys the reality of the impact of the war on families and those left behind at home in a similarly relatable manner. Sally Nicholls’s characterisation is excellent, particularly regarding Margot’s family who depict life in a village vicarage well and the love and occasional friction between the siblings ensures that they feel like real people to the reader. That the story is set at Christmas gives this book an added poignancy, and the link to the Christmas carol in the title is fitting in many ways. The family scenes of preparations for both the day itself and their outings to festive events give this a classic feel which makes this a perfect book for a dark winter evening or to read over Christmas. There is sadness but also hope within the pages of this lovely book. The grief for someone that you have lost but is still here is palpable in places, but the overwhelming feeling is a kind and positive one as we witness people trying to learn how to love, to forgive and to overcome difficulties. I loved reading this book, and it is one of my favourite reads of the year to date.
The Silent Stars Go By should encourage discussion and would be an excellent text for the secondary history curriculum as it is rich in its historical detail. I did not realise that adoption was not legal in Britain until 1926, and this plus the examination of social attitudes and prejudices will be interesting and revealing for readers. Similarly to Things a Bright Girl Can Do there is a feminist theme in addition to the ones of family, loss and love and the role of young women in a rapidly changing world is portrayed eloquently. Most importantly, however, this is a simply gorgeous read, poignant and beautifully written.
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