The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay follows the loves and losses of a family growing up against the backdrop of World War One. Clarry and her older brother Peter live for their summers in Cornwall, staying with their grandparents and running free with their charismatic cousin, Rupert.
But normal life resumes each September – boarding school for Peter and Rupert, and a boring life for Clarry at home with her absent father, as the shadow of a terrible war looms ever closer. When Rupert goes off to fight at the front, Clarry feels their skylark summers are finally slipping away from them.
Time is very significant in this story as we move from the turn of the century towards the dawn of World War I and through to the Summer of 1918. The book is divided into two Parts and further divided by the year. Historically the story has much to offer. From the shocking attitudes of the older generations particularly towards gender roles, the education system and employment options for women to the different experiences of the war: the trenches on the frontline, nurses in the hospitals and the home front. I particularly liked the very balanced exploration of gender. The oppression and emancipation of women was referenced but so too were the expectations for men and it was some of the supporting characters (such as Mrs Morgan and Simon) who embodied a challenge to the stereotypes of the time so effectively.
The treatment of war is realistic without being horrifying. Much is left unsaid, but the discerning reader can imagine what is omitted from the censored letters from the front line. This extract from the Author’s note summarises the monstrous effect of war on the man (and woman!) in the street
‘Perfectly reasonable people, the sort who in their previous lives let wasps out of windows; read story books to children, doing all the proper voices; flinched at flat notes; and hardly ever shouted, got drunk or forgot their mother’s birthdays-absolutely ordinary people- made considerable efforts to kill other absolutely ordinary people whom they had never met.’
The reading level and plot themes are akin to Kate Saunders’ Five Children on the Western Front and the writing is as engaging and immersive. The heroine Clarry reminds me of Carrie in Carrie’s War: strong, intelligent yet also so very vulnerable to the horrors around her. One chapter in and I felt like I knew these characters personally and I was fully invested in following their stories. Whether this was because, as Hilary notes, the world of Clarry, Peter, Rupert, Simon and Vanessa is a true world, or whether it was the authenticity of the writing as Hilary surrounded herself in key artefacts belonging to her characters; I think a little of both, that left me feeling like I’d watched a film, such as Birdsong and with an emotional investment that often leaves me wondering whatever happened to Clarry, her family and dear dear friends.
I am very much looking forward to the sequel The Swallows’ Flight in which the next generation tackle the challenges of WWII.
This title features in our Reading Gladiators Challenge for high attaining readers.
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