The Book That Saved February
March 4, 2021 § 1 Comment
It isn’t the first time a book has dropped into our lap at precisely the right moment. It isn’t the first time reading aloud has wrapped our family in a cozy cocoon against freezing rain and sibling bickering and the maddening sameness of pandemic life. But last month, when the walls were closing in—as I’m sure they would have been even if we weren’t still in temporary housing awaiting the end to our renovation—I felt blessed beyond measure to have stumbled upon Kate Albus’ debut novel, A Place to Hang the Moon (Ages 8-12), with its atmospheric writing, squeezable characters, and old-fashioned charm. It was every bit the salve we needed—and reminiscent of past favorites, like this, this and this.
A Place to Hang the Moon checked every box. We needed escape, and the book is historical fiction, set in England during World War II. Misery loves company, but we needed characters with problems different from our own (and worse, if I’m being honest), and the timeworn plot of down-on-their-luck orphans searching for someone to love them never disappoints. But we also needed comfort. We needed lifting up. We needed the kind of story that makes you believe a steaming mug of hot cocoa and a gentle hand on the shoulder is all one needs to carry on.
That A Place to Hang the Moon is also a kind of fairy tale about the power of stories, with a librarian standing in for the knight in shining armor, was icing on the cake.
Initially, I was only going to read it aloud to my daughter. She had just devoured Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s The War That Saved My Life (Ages 9-13) and its sequel, two extraordinary stories also set during the Blitz—and which I would have been all too happy to read aloud had I not already read them to my son a few years ago (sorry, second child). London’s decision to send tens of thousands of school-age children to the countryside to live with strangers out of the way of impending bombs has always fascinated me. It’s at once blindly trusting—good luck, kids!—and sickly horrifying—no one was running background checks on the families who showed up at train stations to take a child or two—and magnanimously, almost unfathomably humane. An entire country, seized with patriotic fervor and self-preservation, rallied around its youth.
So, I hadn’t gotten past “dark days of World War II London” on the dust jacket before I decided to read A Place to Hang the Moon to my daughter. We hadn’t gotten past the first two chapters before my son started eavesdropping. Soon, even my husband called out from the other side of the room, Wait, can you start that part again?
At the story’s heart are siblings William, Edmund, and Anna, who find themselves with no one to care for them after the death of their emotionally distant grandmother, who long ago stepped in for their dead parents. With no appointed guardian, the children are left with no choice but to follow the preposterous plan laid out by their grandmother’s solicitor: they will join the mass wartime evacuation of London’s children, in hopes of finding some temporary country lodging that can become their forever home. While keeping their predicament a secret, they not only have to prove themselves worthy of loving, they have to find someone worthy of their love, an especially tall bill for three children who know little of parental affection.
At twelve, William is the eldest. For too long, he has had to play the adult—a gentle, pragmatic cheerleader for his siblings, who aren’t but eighteen months younger. It’s William who mends the twins’ scrapes and fashions bedtime stories for them about the parents they scarcely knew. Edmund, by contrast, is impulsive and pig-headed, his pride as easily wounded as his affection won. In many ways, Anna is the glue holding her brothers together, calling out for reassurance when she knows they’ll give it, quietly strong when she knows they can’t. She sees what the others miss, and it’s her winsome charm that first catches the eye of Mrs. Müller, the village’s librarian with a secret of her own.
The fun in a story about finding a forever home is, of course, all the ways it initially goes terribly wrong. Just because a mother agrees to house you, doesn’t mean her sons want you sharing their room, especially when they’re spoiled, conniving, deceitful bullies. Just because another mother takes you in, doesn’t mean she sees you as more than a cook, cleaner, and babysitter for her three screaming infants. There are challenges in the form of outdoor toilets, leaky ceilings, lice outbreaks, watery porridge, and a particularly grueling chase scene involving rats—all against a backdrop of a cold, damp English winter. (See, I told you our quarantine would sound lovely by comparison.)
Each day, in the precious hours after school, the children find respite at the village library, in the company of Mrs. Müller and a roaring fire. There, Anna fosters her love for Frances Hodgson Burnett, and William sets aside his aim of mastering the encyclopedias for the self-care of Agatha Christie. There, too, the children discover that Mrs. Müller is as lonely as they are, with her German husband’s whereabouts unknown, and his rumored fraternizing with the enemy a reason for the other villagers to treat her with distrust and scorn. Is it safe for the children to trust her? Even more, is it safe for them to love her?
But I fear I’ve said too much. Let me leave you with a passage that comes toward the end of the book, when the children have been given a rare kindness in the form of a bedtime story. It speaks to the power of stories to transport and transform, which is precisely what A Place to Hang the Moon did for our family last month. I hope it might do the same for you.
You’ve experienced a variety of bedtime stories, I’m certain. You know their magic. A well-chosen bedtime story sets you on the path to the dream you most need to have. Some speak of adventure—but our threesome had had quite enough of that already. Some frighten you deliciously enough to look under your bed before nodding off, just in case…well, no more need be said about that sort of story. This story, this night, was unlike any other. As the children sank into sleep, the words of the familiar rhyming tale were comfort and tenderness, ritual and home. A sort of prayer. A sort of lullaby. It set them on the path to dreams that felt rather like hope.
Not sorry you’re gone, February 2021. But I don’t imagine another read aloud will live up for some time.
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Review copy from Holiday House. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we also shop local and support our communities when we can.