The Children of the King by Sonia Hartnett

“But that is how life works — something is done, and it is never undone.  Everything that changes, changes everything forever.’

children-of-the-kingThe Children of the King is a literary masterpiece for young people, but a great book for adults as well.  It is so perfectly put together, the language exquisite, and full of nuance and discoveries. During the London Blitz, children were sent from London to live with family members or perfect strangers to escape the relentless bombing by the Germans.  Some children fared well and some horribly, though it was surely painful to be separated from their families even for those in the best situations.

In Hartnett’s book, twelve-year-old, not terribly bright and by her own admission, “a clumsy-clot,” Cecily and her older brother Jeremy Lockwood are sent away, along with their mother, to their family’s estate in Yorkshire.   Jeremy badly wants to stay and help out with the war effort, but he’s only fourteen and must go away.  Their father seems to be involved with some secret aspects of the war, but Jeremy is somewhat resentful that he’s not off fighting in France.  As they ride in their first class compartment, they are aware of the hundreds of children who are on the train with labels pinned to their coats, “like luggage… or price tag[s]”, evacuees from London but not with their mothers.  Instead these children were accompanied by strict ladies.

When they arrive at their destination, Cecily and Jeremy persuade their most reluctant mother to take on a child and that girl is May, a bright,  very perceptive, ten-year-old. They are met at  Heron Hall by Byron the dog and by their father’s brother, Uncle Peregrine, a widower.  Spoiled Cecily introduces May, “Look what we’ve brought with us..This is May Bright…I chose her at the town hall – just like picking a kitten from a basket,”  “Standing before such a man, no handshake or how-do-you-do seemed fitting.  Instead May did an unusual thing, she bowed.  She bowed low enough to see Peregrine Lockwood’s feet, which were clad in sloppy brown slippers.”

May is willful, leaving Heron Hall the next morning alone to explore the surroundings.  Despite Cecily’s protests, eventually Cecily tags along and together they come upon a ruin of a castle

“It’s lovely, isn’t it”  Cecily couldn’t fathom how something so fester and broken could be so spectacular.
It’s strange.  Most of the castle has gone, but— it feels like it’s here, does’t it?”

Cecily believed she knew what May meant.  Although most of Snow Castle’s walls and all of its roof were missing, their very
absence told of things that had been.

And so Snow Castle enters the story as May and Cecil continue visit it and find two young boys hiding out.   The story that Uncle Peregrine tells through many nights of Snow Castle and King Richard and the crimes he committed to maintain his place on the throne is woven in. “[it] is not a pleasant one.  In some ways it is like the fairy tales of old…But it is not a fairytale: this story is true.”   It is a story of power and powerlessness.  Jeremy as well increasing becomes angered by his own powerlessness to do anything to help England defeat Germany.

Children of the King blends history with fantasy most effectively.  The descriptions of war and its destructiveness are blunt and as Peregrine responds to Cecily and Jem’s mother who hates talk of war and “disagreeable stories,” “Why not?  History repeats itself; the battle for power is fought over and over again.”  This is a tremendous coming-of-age story in which Cecily and Jem learn that their parents may not be heroes they thought, but love them nevertheless written in beautiful language.  It bears reading over and over again.  And I’m not one for rereading books.

She (Heloise Lockwood) never recovered from the realization that children are willful people; she never trusted them again. Worse, she discovered that, when it counted, the world was immune to her wishes and commands.  She who’d believed herself important, found she was just an angry bee in a jar.

Hartnett’s interview about this book is a wonderful addition to reading the book.