Donaldson’s children’s play was first published in 2003, by Wayland, in a cheaper, practical edition suitable for using in schools. The most immediately striking thing about this more luxurious edition is the richly attractive illustrations creating a sense of warmth and intimacy not commonly associated with plays for children. In fact, those very illustrations contribute vitally to the readability of the text and help to unify it because there are six scenes, each with multiple settings, and almost thirty characters. Suggestions for production are included as are the text and music of songs of the period.
The historical setting covers two years from Autumn 1939 to Autumn 1941. The action centres on the evacuation of a group of children from their Manchester homes to a rural English village. The plot is simple, and believable. It involves the disruption of home life, the loneliness of the children and their parents, the unpredictable nature of both kindness and unkindness in a strange place, the effects of bombing in Manchester, the serious injury inflicted on a beloved older brother, and an encounter with two likeable Italian prisoners of war, at harvest time. There is a gentle appeal to common humanity against the cruelty of war.
The book is very beautiful and indeed timely as we approach the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War Two. My caveat is that it’s a pity Donaldson did not re-write the text in story form. This beautiful edition in play form does not invite the rough and tumble of multiple production readings with children.