Five Children on the Western Front
Allen & Unwin, 2014
hbk., 340pp., RRP $A19.99
In this new title, author Kate Saunders has resurrected the Pemberton family that E. Nesbit introduced readers to in 1902 in the classic Five Children and It and its sequels. But now the children have grown up – Cyril is off to fight, Anthea is at art college, Robert is a Cambridge scholar Jane is at high school., Lamb is now 11 and there is a young sister Edie. They are back at the White House where they first found the Psammead but when Edie and Lamb find him in the gravel pit he is not the strong, robust character that they have heard so much about. He is as vain and grumpy as ever but there is something wrong with his magic, so the success of wish-granting is somewhat sporadic. To keep himself safe and well he comes to live with the children in a sand-filled bathtub in the attic and Edie and Lamb take care of him.
It seems that in his ancient past, the Psammead (aka Sammy) had been somewhat of a tyrant and despot and only if he repents his acts (which he continues to justify and has no contrition) will he be restored to health. Saunders’ exploration of that through Professor Jimmy’s research and what happens to the children shows parallels to what is happening in the world in 1914. Through occasional wishes that work, the children visit the Western Front seeing the conditions which Cyril, and later Robert, are enduring as well as Anthea who becomes a nurse’s aide. It begins with a 1905 prologue in which the Psammead transports Cyril, Robert, Anthea, Jane and the Lamb 25 years into the future. For the astute reader what is revealed (and concealed) sets the rest of the story up – “I wish I had more time to look at the photographs of us in the future,” Anthea said thoughtfully…”I saw a couple of pictures of ladies who looked a bit like Mother…But I didn’t see any grown-up men …I wonder why not.”
Even though it is a lengthy book, it’s suitable for newly independent readers, particularly those who have enjoyed Five Children and It, and it gives an insight into how the war impacted on families left at home. Some of the things they do and say are very British upper class but on the whole this is a successful reincarnation that really helps today’s readers understand what went on in a gentle way and much more effectively than facts, figures and statistics. While the violence is not graphic, those with any understanding of what went on in France can fill in the gaps. It brings the saga of the Psammead to a close and even though he has shown himself to be a rather unlikeable character in the past, his redemption is complete in the final scenes.
Such is the quality of the book it has been awarded the Costa children’s book award which honours some of the most outstanding books of the year written by authors based in the UK and Ireland A very worthy addition to your collection of World War 1 related books.