Children of Winter
Catnip Press 2007
Three children battle through raging wind and rain to find shelter in an old barn. As they step through the doors into the murky gloom within, Catherine feels the past surround them tangibly. Before they know it they are caught up in a game so real that it could almost be true... Imagination ignited by the idea of possible ancestors, they slowly uncover the story of three other children, left to fend for themselves for one long Winter as the Black Death swept through the rest of the country.
Children of Winter was inspired by the English village of Eyam who famously isolated themselves when the first plague case became apparent in their community in order to prevent the infection spreading further. Doherty's story doesn't mention Eyam by name but rather focuses on Catherine, Tessa and Dan, three young children sent from the village by their parents. The children proceed to live for the Winter in an old shepherd's barn high above the community. Catherine, as the eldest at thirteen carries the brunt of responsibility in terms of their survival. She's a believable enough character who worries quietly over the plight of her younger siblings. Tessa is an altogether more light-hearted girl and Dan seems to have only the vaguest grasp of the peril they are in but they pull together admirably and are impressive in their ingenuity.
The setting itself is beautifully described. Doherty perfectly captures the children's isolation and writes with detail about the realities of living with little support for such a long time. The children sleep on straw, eat endless amounts of cured beef and plain potatoes and are driven to wearing stinking sheep's fleece when the snow arrives. There is a constant fear of rats (who were known to carry the plague) and in once memorably chilling scene, threat from the village itself. As the ground freezes and the weather confines them to they're tiny shelter, it's hard not to feel the chill that seeps into their bones and the underlying terror that Catherine feels for their safety. The only aspect of the story that doesn't work entirely successfully is the book-ending of the historic with the modern, but this is a minor gripe in such a beautifully rendered tale.
I visited Eyam years ago and was completely obsessed with it's history. Full of that morbid fascination so peculiar to children of a certain age I read everything I could get my hands on about Eyam, it's people and the Black Death. I thought them all terribly brave and couldn't believe that one village had taken such a brave stance against a seemingly unbeatable enemy. Had Berlie Doherty's book been about at the time I would have gobbled it up and looked for more. Her writing is pitch perfect for younger readers (and this book is very much aimed at the nine-twelve bracket – I think most teen readers would find it rather young for their increasingly sophisticated tastes) and Children of Winter will give those who pick it up not only a thrilling tale of survival and adventure but also an interesting snapshot of English history that will hopefully have them looking for more. If you have a ten year old in your family who's a keen reader, then Children of Winter would make an excellent Wintery gift this Christmas. Saying that if you're off a certain age, as I am, this will take you back to the kind of books that used to be on the shelves when you were younger and makes for an enjoyably reminiscent read.
Children of Winter is available in all good online and offline bookstores. Thank you to Catnip Press for sending me this title to review.