What a lovely, wonderful, delightful, heartbreaking novel. Sequel to E. Nesbit’s classic Five Children and It, first published in 1904 and never out of print in the 110 years since, Five Children on the Western Front contains all the wit and charm of the first, while moving the story along to its heart-wrenching conclusion.
The Five have become Six, and The Great War has started. Cyril joined the Army originally to go to India, but will now go to France to fight. Anthea is at art college, Robert is a Cambridge scholar and Jane is at high school, dreaming of going to the Medical College for Women. The Lamb is no longer the baby the family; at 11 years old, he has been joined by a little sister, Edith. The Lamb and Edie have grown up listening to stories of the millennia-old sand fairy, the Psammead (sammy-ad), never sure what was truth and what was fiction.
Until he suddenly reappears. But he has changed, as they have. The Psammead is here for a reason, a reason that remains unclear as the war rages on and the years pass. But hints of his magic lead slowly to a purpose and a gift.
The Lamb and Edie become the Psammead’s constant companions over the war years; his unpredictable magic takes them on ghostly adventures to the front, helping them gain an understanding of the blight that has settled across their world.
You do NOT have to read Five Children and It first to read or understand this book. In fact, I read it years and years ago, had totally forgotten until I picked this one up, and realized the story felt familiar. Author Kate Saunders’ prologue quickly gives a background to bring the reader up to speed, then jumps feet first into this delightful sequel.
The characters are beautiful. The changes the family goes through during the war years are relatable and believable. Cyril, young and eager for battle, becomes tired and worn, no longer optimistic for the end. Robert learns that he is capable of much more than study. Anthea finds that she can handle pain and suffering if it means she is contributing to the effort, and Jane embraces the new society that the war brings.
The Psammead is gruff, rude, selfish, and yet capable of generosity and love. His millennia of existence has given him very specific views on the world; while some opinions are ancient and violent and out of touch with reality, he has a clear understanding of humanity that many humans themselves lack. “You humans are always going on about peace – but if you liked it that much, you’d have more of it.”
England in wartime, with a stiff upper lip to cover the agony of the loss of a generation of young men, the thick mud and horror of the trenches, and the overall optimism and joy of young children that embrace the rising of the sun as the start of a new adventure are depicted true to the time in history.
Saunders keeps the language and writing style incredibly close to that of Nesbit. It is, indeed, the writing of a specific time, yet she manages to effortlessly continue the story while modernizing the feel.
There is some description of the horrors of wartime, of injuries and death, but as needed to move the narrative along. Any age can read this novel, but I feel like it might appeal to the older YA demographic, due to the time period, the language and the lessons in the story.
Five Children on the Western Front is published by Faber & Faber.