Top critical review
Sturdy historical YA debut that shows France's home front during World War I
31 October 2018
It’s the summer of 1916. 14-year-old Angélique Lacroix lives with her mother on a farm in a small village in La Mordue in France. Her older brother Pascal and her father are off fighting for France in the war but when a telegram arrives, announcing that her father has been killed in the fighting Angélique cannot mourn for him as he was a violent drunk who beat her, Pascal and her mother.
Angélique and her mother try to keep the farm going as best they can for when Pascal returns from the war. It’s hard though, since the dreaded Requisition took their horse, meaning that they have to drag their plough by themselves and because the army keeps cancelling harvest leave for the soldiers, meaning that crops are being left to rot in the ground because of a lack of people to bring them in. Still, Angélique and her mother manage as best they can until the Requisition suddenly turn up again, this time wanting their pig and their cow. Worse, Angélique’s mother reveals a secret she’s been keeping: one that threatens everything that Angélique holds dear.
The family’s only hope is if Angélique can sell the farm’s Toulouse geese to wealthy army officers, which means that Angélique and her uncle Gustav must travel to the front where desperation means they can get the highest prices. But travelling across war-torn France is dangerous with Angélique and Gustav facing challenges and enemies at every turn who would take everything they own, just because they can …
Rowena House’s debut YA historical novel is an interesting affair that looks at civilian life in France during World War I (something that gets little attention in the UK and which offers an original perspective on a well-worn subject, including the requisitions, wildcat strikes and profiteering) but the story itself is fairly predictable and I didn’t buy into Angélique’s naiveite while the ending disappointed me given the absence of Pascal.
The main reason to read this book is that you’re getting a fresh perspective on World War I, specifically an idea of what was happening in France during the war. I found this really interesting as I didn’t have much knowledge of the subject before reading this and although I knew there had been some strikes, I hadn’t realised how the Requisition had decimated some French farms by taking livestock for the soldiers and how this, compounded by the shortage of men to work in the fields, drove some farms under. Particularly good is how House draws in real events (such as a farmer who was executed for shooting a Requisition soldier trying to take his animals) and her research is excellent as there is a good feel for the period here and the hard attitudes people had towards farmers and peasants, who were seen as profiteering from the war.
Angélique is fine as a central character and House allows her to grow emotionally over the course of the book, particularly as revelations are made about her family, which make her re-evaluate her relationship with her father and her aunt (Gustav’s wife). I especially enjoyed her relationship with Gustav, which grows over their journey and separation and which forms a neat contrast with her relationship with her mother, which is more secretive and based on mutual misunderstandings. However, I never really bought into her naiveite when it came to dealing with other people during her journey and House over-relies on something suddenly happening or an ally suddenly turning up to turn a potentially dire situation around. I was also very confused by the climactic scenes when Angélique comes to sell the geese – partly because up until then I wasn’t really sure how much she needed but also because there didn’t seem to be any real plan or reason to the numbers that she was charging, which meant that the final auction seemed very artificial to me. Finally, I wasn’t particularly taken with Angélique’s relationship with René, mainly because they’re both so young so the marriage storyline was a bit icky for me (although I acknowledge it was appropriate for the time and place) and because the ending, which sees her reunite with René, came at the expense of Angélique’s reunion with Pascal – the relationship which, although unseen on the page, is repeatedly hammered home as being her driving motivation – so to not see him at the end and to be left wondering in what state he is after the War, made me feel a little cheated.
Ultimately – and despite my issues – I did think that this was a sturdy debut and I would be interested in reading what House produces next.
Review copy from publisher.