The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay


What a truly lovely book this, aimed at readers aged between around 9 and 11, and telling the story of a group of children growing up just before the First World War and their experiences during the war, is.  I didn’t think that books like this existed – a recently-written, old-fashioned, traditional-style children’s book, adapted to modern sensibilities but without ever being anachronistic.

Each of the five main characters has so much to tell us – bright, ambitious Clarry, who wants the educational opportunities which her father doesn’t think are important for girls; gentle, friendly Simon, whose love for another young man is so sensitively handled at a time when same sex love so often met with hostility; golden boy Rupert, who’s shattered by his experiences at the Front; light-hearted Vanessa who leaves her studies to become a war nurse; and Peter, who can’t serve in the Armed Forces because of a self-inflicted childhood injury, but becomes a doctor instead.

It’s written for children and the style of prose reflects that, but it’s beautifully-written in a way that adults will appreciate too.

I didn’t realise at first that this had only been published in 2018, because the setting is so traditional.  Clarry (Clarissa) and Peter are motherless, which is typical of early to mid-20th century children’s books, although this one has a sad sub-plot in which Clarry blames herself for her mother’s death shortly after childbirth.  Their cousin Rupert’s parents are in India.  They all spend the entire summer holidays with their grandparents in Cornwall.  Rupert goes to boarding school.  We do see Clarry having to get a job after school hours, but that’s more because her dad’s so mean than because the family are short of money.

I’m very impressed with Hilary McKay for writing a book like this, because there’s a very nasty attitude now – “privileged pain”, anyone? – that going to boarding school and having names like Rupert and Clarissa is some sort of crime.  It really isn’t.  Everyone comes from somewhere.  There are a few gentle gibes about parents who dump their kids and go off abroad, and we’re told how hard the servants work – as I said, it’s attuned to modern sensibilities – but there’s none of the spite against well-to-do people which certain people seem to think is acceptable.  It isn’t.  Well done, Hilary McKay.

Everyone hero-worships Rupert, and I didn’t entirely get that, but maybe it works better for readers in the intended age range.  However, Peter doesn’t want to go to Rupert’s school, and jumps off a train in order to injure himself to get out of going.  He ends up going anyway, and is left with a permanent limp.  At school, he becomes best friends with Simon, and the three cousins become very friendly with Simon and his sister Vanessa – who, by some weird coincidence, appear to live in the same town as Peter and Clarry.  Vanessa goes to the local girls’ grammar school, and, with help from her and Peter, Clarry is able to go there too, despite her father’s lack of interest.

It’s interesting that we see both schools.  That’s very unusual in children’s books, which are usually either set in one school or else are about a mixed gender group of children whom we only see when they’re on holiday from their separate schools.

And everyone’s obsessed with Rupert!   Clarry hero-worships him.  So, to some degree, does Peter.  He and Vanessa seem to be quite involved at one point: there’s even a remark about the extent to which she went to try to cheer him up when he was on leave during the war, although nothing’s actually spelt out.  And Simon adores him – which develops from a younger boy’s hero-worship for the cool older boy at school to something deeper.

Simon’s feelings for Rupert are very well-handled.  Hopefully we’re now at a point where having gay characters in children’s books is completely normal and not a big deal, but, with historical fiction, there’s also a need to show the issues of the past, without doing it in a way that will normalise those attitudes for the young readers.  One of Rupert’s friends makes fun of Simon, but Rupert quickly turns the attention away from him.  And an unkind neighbour says something about it being better if “boys like him” die in the war: Clarry is shocked and disgusted.  But Rupert, although he’s straight, isn’t uncomfortable with Simon’s feelings, and the rest of the gang aren’t either.

War breaks out.  Rupert and his best friend join up, and the best friend is killed..  Vanessa becomes a nurse.  We do see some of the action on the Western Front: it isn’t too graphic, but it’s made pretty clear how horrible it is.  The wartime stories aren’t overly realistic, but it is a children’s book.  Simon joins up so that he can be with Rupert, and, hey presto, they’re posted to the same place.  Vanessa and Simon’s dad is taken prisoner by the Ottomans, but escapes and makes his own way home.  When Rupert’s injured, having lost his dog-tags, Clarry tracks him down by sending photos of him to every war hospital in Britain, France and Belgium.  It’s meant for primary school kids, OK!   And it’s all very well-written. Also, in a presumed nod to War Horse, there’s a lot of concern about the family horse (owned by the grandparents of the three cousins) having to go to war.

And it tackles the issues of shell shock and survivor guilt, which were swept under the carpet after the First World War.  Rupert survives, but he’s deeply traumatised, cuts himself off from the other surviving members of the gang, and isn’t able to resume a normal life for several years afterwards.  Meanwhile, Peter, who succeeds in qualifying as a doctor, and Vanessa marry, and have five children.  Clarry graduates from Oxford, and becomes a teacher, and also publishes a book with Peter.

But, in war books, someone always has to die, and it’s Simon.  I know that some people feel that gay characters are too easily killed off, and that there’s a trope about tragic same sex love, but it is a book about the First World War, so one of the two soldiers had to die.  I’d assumed it would be Rupert: I was very surprised when it was Simon.  And that’s part of the reason Rupert feels so bad: he thinks that Simon, who was too young to join up legally or to be conscripted, and lied about his age (as Rupert himself had done) was only there because of him.

It is a children’s book, though, and there has to be a happy ending – unless it’s one of those 19th century religious things where someone sweet and angelic dies!   Rupert returns, and I think we’re meant to assume that he and Clarry get married and live happily ever after.  I’d think it’d be rather weird to marry a cousin with whom you’d grown up, but I suppose it’s not really any different to marrying a childhood friend.  And their reunion takes place in Cornwall, where they spent all those happy, golden childhood summers.

The war hasn’t taken everything.  I keep thinking about how coronavirus has taken this spring, but, just as there were other summers for Clarry and Rupert, hopefully we’ll all stay safe and well and there’ll be other springs for us, with daffodils and bluebells, lambs and laburnum arches, and tennis and football.

This is a lovely, lovely book.  99p on Kindle!  That’s the best 99p I’ve spent in ages.




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