Children of Winter, by Berlie Doherty

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Summary from Goodreads of Children of Winter by Berlie Doherty, (1985, 128 pages): Catherine and her family are out for a walk when a sudden storm blows up. The children take shelter in a deserted barn which seems strangely familiar, although they have never been there before. As the daylight fades, Catherine senses the secrets of the surrounding hills press in upon her, secrets from another, older time.

While reading the first chapter, I was entranced by the delicious creepy feeling as it gradually dawned on Catherine that she was remembering events from a life that was not her own. Catherine’s two younger siblings notice that she is acting strangely and talking about other children who also sheltered in the barn from a storm. Catherine convinces her siblings to “act out” what she is seeing in her mind’s eye. Then the narrative shifts to 1666, and follows the plight of three siblings of that time coping with the Great Plague. The focus of the story remains there until the last three pages of the book. So, it is not so much a time travel story so much as historical fiction in a thin time travel veil.

The plot raises intense ethical questions which are just as relevant to people grappling with Ebola today as they were to people over 300 years ago during the Great Plague. Namely, do you walk away from a dying loved one, leaving them to die a painful death alone but saving yourself from the illness, or do you nurse the afflicted as best you can at the risk of contracting the disease yourself? Perhaps it is a timeless question. At the beginning of the story the mother makes a painful decision. She decides to separate from her children by sending them to live in a barn a little distance away from their village so they will have a chance of survival. This brought to mind parents sending their children away during World War II.

The theme of kids being brave and having to manage on their own never gets old, in my opinion. It reminded me of some books I read as a child, such as  these:

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boxcarsnowup2It is always fun to read about the domestic details of kids setting up housekeeping, for example fashioning a table and chair out of a large rock and log. I appreciated how the children in this story pull together, taking on different roles in order to survive. I would like for my own children to read the description of the kids eating potatoes, which the 1666 family regards as a treat.

I’m interested in how epidemics throughout history must have changed daily life in so many ways. I wonder if historical plagues were more terrifying because people did not know know exactly how they were spread.

This novel was written by a British author and there were a few unfamiliar words I had to look up, such as cagoule (raincoat), but the author’s meaning was clear throughout. I believe this book is out-of-print, although used copies are easy to locate. I probably would not have found this gem were it not for the review at Charlotte’s Library. But like Charlotte, I was disappointed by the ending which left me hanging about the fate of a major character.

Find more middle grade book reviews by following links at Sharon Messenger’s blog.

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