As a primary school teacher I have read many a children’s book set during the second world war. The standard has been set high by the likes of Once, Goodnight Mister Tom, Letters from the Lighthouse, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and The Umbrella Mouse. All of these are must reads and I can now add Our Castle by the Sea to that list. It is a gripping wartime adventure that perfectly captures a young girl’s life on the home-front.
Our Castle by the Sea is a beautifully woven tale about the second world war as seen through the eyes of twelve year old Pet. Pet lives in a lighthouse surrounded by four giant stones (the Daughters of Stone) on the south coast of England with her Pa, her German ‘mutti’ and her older sister Mags. Pet’s life revolves around her family and the lighthouse and her mind is full of legends of a ship-eating sea monster known as the Wyrm and the four stone girls that offered up their lives by singing a ship safely back to shore. It is these stories that Pet’s father told her and her sister when they were younger that both haunt and entrance her. The Wyrm is a regular source of Pet’s nightmares and she feels an unexplainable connection to the stones.
Pet’s peaceful and idyllic life is shattered with the outbreak of war. For war changes people. England in wartime is no place for a foreigner and soon Pet’s world is crumbling around her. Mutti is sent to an internment camp, her Pa is exhausted - full of worry and is suffering from the stresses and strains of war - and Mags is acting mysteriously, disappearing at unusual times of the day. Amongst mounting tensions, growing distrust and acts of sabotage, Pet must untangle an ever-growing web of secrets and lies to keep the lighthouse safe and save her family. Can the family survive the horrors of war? You can choose your country or your family, you can not choose both.
Our Castle by the Sea has all the elements you would expect to find in a war story - spies, evacuation, rations, planes, U-boats, air raid sirens, black-outs, guns and bombs. What really made this story for me though was the focus on the family drama rather than the fighting. Strange realistically narrates the effects of war and as you flick through the pages and the consequences of war on this tight-knit family continue to take their toll, you really feel the family’s heartbreak as their idyllic life is torn apart by the war. Strange shows how war can quickly change the views of people and that even those that have been part of a community for years can instantly be made to feel like outsiders. She highlights the trouble caused by traitors, the shocking interment of innocent foreigners and how rumours and gossip quickly become truths. Even Pet’s Pa, a respected and trustworthy man in his position of great responsibility as lighthouse keeper and with his phone line direct to the Admiralty is not above suspicion.
Amongst all the hatred, we see the great lengths people go to to protect their loved ones. All of Pet’s family are hiding things to try and protect each other - it doesn’t matter what happens, family always comes first. The polarising characters of Pet and Mags play out beautifully together. Pet is frightened, lonely and feels small and unimportant contrasted with Mags who is bold, brave and fearless. It is Pet though that grows most as a character - her wartime experiences see her overcome her fears, face dangers head on and face the startling truth about her family.
A compelling and thrilling read which is a great fit for fans of historical fiction.
Recommended for 9+.