As 2014 is the 100th anniversary of World War I (or, The Great War), we should expect many children’s and young adult historical novels to come. (I hope). I grew up watching war films and Dad’s Army, so I’d love to read more novels set during that period of history. Stay Where You Are and Then Leave is one of the first novels for young people to be published ahead of the centenary, written by John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
Alfie Summerfield was just five years old when World War I broke out in July 1914. His young father, Georgie, promised he wouldn’t enlist voluntarily, only to break his promise the very next day, walking into the house in full uniform. Four years later, Alfie is nine years old and a little entrepreneur. Alfie has taken it upon himself to start a business shining shoes in King’s Cross Station because, although his mother Margie is working as a nurse, she is barely earning enough for food, even though her work allows little time for sleep. Alfie believes, reluctantly, that Georgie died in battle, a fate that Margie struggles to accept. Alfie is working hard when he spots his father’s name on a stack of papers carried by a military doctor. According to the papers, Georgie is in hospital, alive.
Stay Where You Are and Then Leave is a novel with one of the youngest narrators I’ve read. As I said in my review of Picture Me Gone, it is fascinating to see the world through the eyes of a child. Stay Where You Are and Then Leave begins with Alfie living a relatively calm and normal life, where instead of being preoccupied by the war, his family is his whole world. Alfie perceives the adults in his family and close-knit community to be ancient: old men, who are constantly exhausted and experience poor eyesight, even though they are in their early 20s and 30s, and he struggles to imagine what it must be like to be 21 years old. Just four years on, Alfie understands the world a little better – unfortunately too well, for such a young boy. Alfie knows that his mother is hiding letters from Georgie in her bedroom, so he sneaks in to read them, and is often confused by what he finds. Until one day the letters stop. Alfie is left wondering what has happened to his father. Margie reveals that he is part of a top-secret government mission, but Alfie believes that his mother just won’t face the reality of his father’s death. But is he really dead?
Stay Where You Are and Then Leave is a children’s novel that packs so much history into 250 pages and should be appreciated by all ages. We have the engaging mystery of what happened to Georgie, surrounded by what’s going on in the rest of Great Britain. It’s a world where conscientious objectors – conchies – are treated terribly and attitudes are negative towards the suffragettes. Where bodily wounds and shell-shock are a part of day-to-day life, and are both caused by one and the same – yet are treated very differently. And where those at home experience extreme poverty and whole families are deported to work camps because of their ethnicity, despite having lived in England all of their lives. I feel like not as much attention is paid to World War I and so I’m quite excited to see just how much children will learn from Stay Where You Are and Then Leave.
Stay Where You Are and Then Leave is beautifully written and enjoyable, but it does not shy away from the harshness of wartime and the effect the war had on the entire country. Alfie is only nine years old, so he escapes battle, but what’s most heartbreaking to me is that he has no idea that he’ll be forced to experience exactly what Georgie has been through in 21 years time when World War II breaks out. Stay Where You Are and Then Leave is almost a crash course in World War I history, weaving an emotional story with the reality of war (we even get a little cameo from the Prime Minister at the time!) as well as an understanding of cultural attitudes. Stay Where You Are and Then Leave is a wonderful novel that shares a very important part of our history, tough to read at times but incredibly rewarding.
Published: 26th September 2013 (UK) 25th March 2014 (US)
Publisher: Random House Children’s Publishers (UK) Henry Holt and Co. (US)