Rescue in Ravensdale by Esme Cartmell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Oh this was interesting.
I picked this up from one of my local bookshops with a healthy section in vintage children’s fiction. I’ve found some interesting titles there before and this, with the local – ish, connections caught my eye. I didn’t know the author nor the title, but I’m always interested in books that head up North and tie themselves tightly to landscape and space and place. I’m even more interested when they’re from the first half of the twentieth century because a) it’s my jam and b) I’m always intrigued as to what they say about the world they live in.
Rescue In Ravensdale is set during the summer of 1939. There’s an authors note which explains that the location is imaginary, the people are imaginary, the events are imaginary (except for the cat), and then there’s another little cast introduction of the main characters with a breakdown of their noseses (straight / snub / snub / straight / aquiline) and then! (we’re still not done) there’s a little bit of blurb to set the scene for the opening of the text which gives us the banging first line of “It’s like the beginning of a Story for Girls,” said Kyra. And then! And then! One of the children turns out to be into acronyms and the chapters – a thing I only sort of really realised towards the end of the book – spell out SWASTIKA.
I have literally never read a book quite like this. It is not perfect by any means (some of the plot is bodgey at best, and some of the ‘winsome’ moments with the kids are a bit ‘oh god, oh god end it now’) but then suddenly this book drops in some political commentary and Roger – the sole young boy – finds himself contemplating what his life is going to be like in wartime – and it kind of hits somewhere madly transcendent.
An example: There’s a moment in one chapter where Roger is talking with his Aunt and they talk about the difference between boys and girls. Roger laughs and says that maybe his half-brothers believed that boys were “grander” than girls, but he doesn’t. And then his Aunt begins to talk about how he’ll maybe see that idea altered in his lifetime:
Roger gave a non-committal grunt, and hoped it did not sound rude. After all, he did not know aunt very well, and he was shy at having committed himself to such a criticism of his half-brothers. Also, he and his friends at school had sometimes discussed with bitterness the lifetime likely to come to them.
Mrs Levington’s next remark showed that she understood more than he expected her to understand.
“I was about your age in 1914,” she said. “The war to end war, we called it.”
I read that about ten times when I first came across it because I wasn’t quite sure about what I was reading and then, all of a sudden, it hit me. I still can’t quite get over the subtlety of it, that deceptively simple depth and just the weight of it.
As the book progresses, we get various ‘glorious last Summer’ shenanigans set against the rise of the war. A German appears, a swastika is found on the moors, nothing is quite what it seems to be, and all that matters – really – is that British, sunshine-filled, hot summer and being together with family.
Like I said, this isn’t perfect. It’s problematic, heavily dated (some of the language is deeply challenging for a modern reader), but it’s also poignant, elegiac, and deeply, deeply mournful for the world that’s about to be lost forever. In a way, I think it’s kind of everything.