Reviewed by Emma Crowley
If at all possible, send or take your household animals into the country in advance of an emergency. If you cannot place them in the care of neighbours, it really is kindest to have them destroyed."
Joanna Ryan’s father has gone off to war, leaving her in the care of her step-mother, a woman more concerned with having a good time than being any sort of parent to her.
But then she finds a puppy, left for dead, and Joanna’s becomes determined to save him, sharing her meagre rations with him. But, in a time of war, pets are only seen as an unnecesary burden and she is forced to hide her new friend, Harry from her step-mother and the authorities. With bombs falling over Bristol and with the prospect of evacuation on the horizon can they keep stay together and keep each other safe?
Looking at Lizzie Lane's author page on Amazon she has quite a back catalogue of books but War Orphans is the first book I have read by this author. Honestly I had never heard of Lizzie Lane previous to reading this book but I couldn't not read it when faced with such a cute dog on the cover. I'm a sucker for a dog in a story and in this one Harry is a star that brings comfort, solace and support to our young female protagonist Joanna Ryan.
This book is set in Bristol during World War Two and I've read plenty of books set during this time period before all focusing on different aspects of the war but War Orphans presented a different viewpoint, one which I had never read before. It had the added bonus of focusing of what happened to the majority of domestic pets once the war had begun. I suppose nowadays you wouldn't give much thought to such a thing considering the six long years of hardship that was to follow the outbreak of war and all the horrific events that went with it. But here Lizzie Lane has shone light on what happened and used the puppy Harry as a focus for the book and in doing so Joanna's story along with a few older characters is free to be told.
Joanna finds a bag of puppies left for dead and drowning in the river but one determined little fighter is still barely alive and has the strength to keep going. The only problem is all animals had been ordered by the government to be sent 'to the country' - realistically thousands of pets were put down within the first few days of the announcement of the war. Joanna had already lost her beloved cat and in finding this puppy she know she must keep him a secret. At the time it was believed there would be no extra food for pets or animals unless they could be killed for food so it was best to get rid of them. But a unique bond is formed between Joanna and Harry - a bond which will be tested to the limit. Can they survive everything the war will throw at them?
Overall War Orphans is a very light, easy read and it is not until the last quarter of the book that I felt the pace of the book really picked up and it became a bit more meatier as things began to happen. Right from the start although I admired Joanna and her steely determination despite all the hardships and obstacles she endures I did wonder how can an author pull off a war time saga book with a 9 year old as its lead character? I thought it would be rather monotonous following her daily routine in keeping away from her stepmother Elspeth and also keeping Harry a secret from the older generation. Thankfully my fears were quashed when other older characters were introduced in the form of Joanna's teacher Sally Hadley and her father Seb. Their stories at first were told separately from that of Joanna's but slowly they all began to become connected and the book felt a bit more solid and less filling in the pages. As I have said it only became grittier towards the end and at times I did wonder would anything ever really happen?
The blurb suggests Joanna and the puppy weather the storms of war together but at times the story felt very far removed from that. Lizzie Lane does set the scene very well throughout the book as to how everybody was affected by the war. Although the main events may be occurring across the channel every bit of the hardship is felt right at their doorstep. None more so than for Joanna whose father has had to enlist. She had lost her mother at a very young age and now Elspeth is the new woman in her father's life, a stepmother who is useless, cruel and a waster but what can Joanna do when left with such an abhorrent woman whilst waiting for her father to return home?
It's sad to think that there could have been many children in this situation with their fathers away fighting and they are left behind with a woman who cares only about herself and finding fancy men rather than looking after the child left in her care. Joanna was virtually left to look after herself, keep the house going all without any love, care or affection. Being locked in the coal bunker was a cruel form of punishment not to mention never having clothes that fitted or a decent meal in her belly. Cutting words and cruel treatment would have done nothing to give Joanna hope or happiness in her life. So finding Harry was the salvation she needed, a little ray of sunshine which would give her the strength to go on and believe that maybe things could come right in the end. But tragedy and difficulties aplenty are placed in her path all which she must attempt to overcome.Joanna loves Harry because she has no one else. So she must keep him a secret and when she finds a shed abandoned at the local allotment it is the perfect hiding place. Little does she realise this shed belongs to a man who himself is lost and struggling and when he uncovers the little girls secret it in turn begins to help him come to terms with his own loss and provides a ray of positivity that he believed he would never again experience. It proves that in times of hardship and pain that there is always someone or something out there that will come good again in a way which could be very unexpected but none the less provide a good outcome.
Sally Hadley is Joanna's teacher. She is single and living with her father Seb who is stuck in an endless cycle of sadness and depression following the death of his beloved wife. Gone are the days when he would spend hours down at his allotment tending all the flowers he grew for his wife. Now the government wants all available land to be turned over to planting vegetables to help with the rationing but Seb can't bring himself to leave the house let alone help out with the war effort. Sally is frustrated with him as she is left to carry the burden at home whilst keeping up her teaching job. Also she can see in school that Joanna is becoming increasingly neglected and tormented but confronting Elspeth does little good as the threat of evacuation is the carrot dangled in front of her. If Joanna were to leave what would happen to Harry secretly hidden in the shed? Sally was a lovely character who only wished for a bit of personal happiness in her life. She just wanted someone to love her and take care of her but feels she can't move on with her own life as her father is suffering. Meeting Pierre, nephew of Lady Ambrose De Vere who is trying to save as many animals as possible, provides Sally with a little light relief and I hoped this would develop into something more. Although Pierre seemed to have some sort of back story and was clearly hiding something. Sally was kind, compassionate and loving the total opposite to Elspeth who was always out for her own gain. She was greedy, manipulative and trampled anyone who got in her way of finding a man who would set her up for life.
All the setting up of plot lines came together nicely at the end with unexpected twists and turns that left you wondering would any character find happiness or contentment in any sense of the word? In the end the setting and characters were vastly different from the circumstances we encounter within the first half of the book. Is this a positive or negative thing? Well you will have to read the book yourself to discover the answer.
War Orphans was a nice,pleasant read with a few obstacles thrown in for the main characters. It was a lovely read at the time but I don't think it will be one I will remember the most come the end of the year. I think it is a perfect read for those who exclusively read in this genre reading family wartime sagas one after the other. But for people new to this genre or for those like me who dip in and out of it as I like to mix genres up this book is maybe not the best book to start with. I appreciate the author taking a different slant using Harry as a focal point as it must be difficult to keep writing books in this genre adding in new aspects to the war that haven't already been written but for me it just lacked that something that would have made this a riveting read. Don't get me a wrong it is a good read and people should try it out but it just didn't fully hit the mark for me.
Many thanks to Josie at Ebury for my copy of War Orphans and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.