CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 8 . . . . December 10, 2004
Marina nodded, and shone the light on the stairs to guide me. I balanced carefully on the remaining fragments of the top stair and pushed the door. No good. Wouldn't budge. With a strength born of fear and fury, I heaved my skinny shoulder against it, once, twice, until on the third try, it burst open. Below me, Marina and Quigs let out a cheer.
The bright sunlight dazzled me after the dusty gloom of the shelter. I closed my eyes briefly and reopened them, grabbing the doorpost for support as the world churned around me. Everything was the same-and yet, different. There was the school, just as before-but different. The window frames were painted brown, not white. Brown tape criss-crossed each pane of glass. High walls of sandbags guarded the entrance to the shelter. In the distance, a line of silvery blimps floated in the sky, bouncing on their tethers. Barrage balloons?
While doing research for a school history project, three young students and their teacher decide to explore an old World War II air raid shelter behind their London-area school. When they emerge, they find themselves trapped in World War II London in the middle of an air raid.
Author Sandi LeFaucheur employs time travel to excellent effect in her novel, The Secret Shelter. By plopping three regular, modern-day kids into the harsh realities of World War II, LeFaucheur does a great job of making other modern-day children wonder, "What if that happened to me? How would I cope?" Rather than trying to have contemporary students experience what the war would have been like through a school history textbook, LeFaucheur makes air raid shelters, bombings, blackouts, wartime schooling and food scarcities all the more real and tangible for today's young readers. Sophie, Marina, Quigs and their teacher, Mr. Schmidt, are soon taken in by a kindly woman, Esther Quigley (who turns out to be a relative of Quigs), whose husband is away at war. Their friendship with Esther, as well as the acquaintances they make with other local residents, plunges them even more deeply into 1940s-era London. Well researched, the book features an excellent flow of dialogue, and its constant wartime dramas are leavened by a good dose of humour throughout.
As the story moves through Sophie, Marina, Quigs and Mr. Schmidt's present-day lives and then their three harrowing months in 1940 London, The Secret Shelter suffers from a few pacing difficulties. The book is sluggish to start, but once the students and Mr. Schmidt (who renames himself Mr. Smith, to hide his German heritage from the local residents) find themselves in 1940, things can happen a little too quickly. For instance, the girls know their classmate Quigs (short for Quigley, his last name), only at an acquaintance level, but almost immediately after they time travel to 1940, he spills his family's abusive story, that his father hits both his mother and him. It could be the shock of being dropped into a war zone that makes him burst out and tell them, but it rings as being unrealistic. Other scenes are drawn out, while others, which could have been fleshed out, fall short of the mark.
For an even richer look at World War II England, readers might want to check out Jill Paton Walsh's Fireweed or Michelle Magorian's Goodnight Mr. Tom.
Recommended with Reservations.
Christy Goerzen is a Master of Arts in Children's Literature candidate at the University of British Columbia and works in communications for various arts organizations.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.