The Valley of Lost Secrets
304pp., pbk., RRP $A14.99
September, 1939. Jimmy and his little brother Ronnie are “in another country that feels like another world [and] there’s a big scary war on that no one seems to be talking about.” Evacuated from London to a small coal-mining village in Wales where the landscape is so different; the family they are billeted with are viewed with suspicion by the locals; and London friends are now enemies and vice versa it is no wonder that 12-year-old Jimmy finds it so much harder to fit in than 6-year-old Ronnie. And on top of that, by accident he finds a human skull in the hollow at the base of an old tree. What are the secrets it holds?
This is an intriguing read that kept me absorbed from beginning to end as it will any young independent reader who likes a mystery that twists and turns but ends up just as it should. Taking them to a real period in history when the children were sent to stay with strangers in strange places to keep them safe from the expected bombs that would fall on London, the characters, although unfamiliar, are very relatable and the whole thing epitomised this year’s CBCA Book Week theme of Old Worlds, New Worlds, Other Worlds opening up a different but real way of life. While it’s not the green lush countryside his Dad promised him, and he can’t read the sign at the train station, to Jimmy nothing feels right and everything feels wrong. Although Ronnie quickly settles in and embraces his new life with Aunty Gwen and Uncle Alun, Jimmy is reluctant, resentful. and, at time, rude. Confused by the circumstances, and convinced the war will be over by Christmas, he doesn’t want to accept their kindness feeling like it would be a betrayal to his family. Despite being surrounded by people, he feels alone. His best friend has changed and there’s no one he can confide in. Even though he knows that when he finds the skull it is a discovery that is too big to bear alone, and his imagination goes wild, he still keeps the secret close in a town where everyone seems to know everyone’s business and have an opinion about it.
While this is a debut novel, it has the power to send readers on a new reading journey as they seek to find out more about this period and the stories of children who endured so much more than they will ever know. Both Jimmy and Florence learn a lot about themselves and each other as the story evolves, encouraging the reader to perhaps look beyond the surface of their peers and be more compassionate and considerate in the future.
Added to that, the author has embedded another mystery in the pages for the reader to solve, making this a must-have read that deserves all the praise it is getting.