I noticed the other day that this book, Voyage of the Sparrowhawk, has won the children's book category of the Costa award, and so I decided to send for it. The afternoon it arrived, on a cold grey day when the obvious thing to do was to curl up with a good book, I settled down on the settee and got stuck in.
It's 352 pages long, and other than getting up to make a cup of tea, I barely looked up until I'd read it. It's that entertaining.
Set just after the First World War, it's about two orphans, Lotti and Ben. Lotti's parents, wealthy, charming, and very much in love, both with each other and with their little daughter, are killed in a plane crash. Lotti inherits their beautiful house and their money - but her guardian is her ghastly uncle, Hubert Netherbury, who is a cruel bully who wants to enjoy her house and money and, seeing Lotti as an inconvenience, packs her off to an unpleasant boarding school.
The story starts when she is twelve. Having just run away from school, she meets Ben and they become firm friends. Ben's background is far less privileged. Having spent his early years in a horrible orphanage, he is rescued by Nathan, a kindly barge owner. Nathan comes across Ben and his older friend Sam and, moved by their plight, takes them in. However, a few years later the war intervenes. Sam joins up and is injured. Nathan goes to France to see him in hospital, and is killed in a bombing raid: Sam is missing, presumed dead.
By coincidence, the hospital is close to the village where Lotti's beloved grandmother lives. Strangely, she has lost touch with her grandmother; though she has written many letters to her, she has never heard back.
But then various things happen which convince the two of them that they have no choice but to run away - and to where else but that village in France? And in what but Nathan's old barge, the Sparrowhawk? With them are their two dogs, which help to move the action along nicely.
The charm of the book is largely in its characters - not just Lotti and Ben, but their supporting cast of friends and helpers. They are generous, spiky, kind, practical, funny, brave, and Natasha Farrant tells their stories with crispness and panache. It's not all spun sugar: there are instances of real cruelty, there's jeopardy - and there are quite a few deaths.
When you start to write books for children, someone will point out to you quite early on that you need to devise a way to get rid of parents. Otherwise, how can your child heroes have the adventures they need to keep readers turning the pages? Back in the olden days, Enid Blyton did it with a flourish: off the kids would go to boarding school, and in the holidays to Kirrin Island. Convalescence from a serious illness was another goody, as with Will Stanton in Susan Cooper's The Grey King. Or there's always a wardrobe. Natasha Farrant ruthlessly wipes out , not one, but two set of parents here. (Interestingly, I heard Frank Cottrell Boyce on the radio the other day, talking about the Moomins - and he pointed out that in the Moomin books, this doesn't happen: the family is at the centre of the books. Each member is important, and when an adventure is afoot, the parents aren't necessarily left out of it.)
All that aside, this is a wonderfully readable and exciting book: perfect for distracting children - and yes, adults too - from these rather dreary days in which we find ourselves.
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