This moving and tautly-constructed tale of secrets and damaged characters is an excellent read for young and old(er) adults alike. From the opening line, ‘The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie’, we’re in the hands of an accomplished storyteller, and one who isn’t afraid to pull her punches when it comes to the darker side of human nature.
Annabelle, the thoughtful twelve-year-old heroine, is a literary descendent of Scout Finch. We see 1940s rural Pennsylvania through her eyes, and there’s a beauty captured in Wolk’s narrative, one which allows us to forget that America is fighting a war, ‘Walking to school that morning was pure joy. The ground was soft and fragrant, the birds talkative, and the sun somewhat hazy, as if it wore a silk stocking.’ However, this peaceful idyll has already been shattered by the arrival of Betty, a girl sent to live with her grandparents because, so the gossip has it, she is ‘incorrigible’. Betty, like the brief references that Annabelle makes about the war, casts a dark shadow over this rural world, and will have an impact on many around her. She is cruel and manipulative, and Wolk brilliantly captures the threat such children pose for their peers.
Like Lee’s heroine, Annabelle must learn to deal with the impact of injustice when a local man, the solitary Toby, is suspected of abducting Betty. Toby is a veteran of the previous war and Annabelle’s family have forged a quiet friendship with him. He is a familiar figure in the landscape, ‘Toby appeared in layers as I walked up the steep lane: first his hatted head, then more and more of him down to his boots as I reached the flat ground at the top of the lane. He was a scarecrow, but for the guns on his back and his arms hanging loose at his sides’, but one who raises suspicion because he is an outsider.
This is a rich examination of motivations and loyalties, and the characters are deftly drawn. It makes for a very memorable novel, and one which deserves to be counted alongside classics such as Mockingbird.