Children of Winter, by Berlie Doherty, for Timeslip Tuesday

Children of Winter, by Berlie Doherty (middle grade, 1985, reissued in the UK in 2007; that's the cover shown at left), for Timeslip Tuesday-- the cold of winter and the horror of plague combined make for a gripping read.

On what should have been an easy hike in the Peak District, three children are separated from their parents.  They take shelter in an old barn.....and there the oldest, Catherine, finds herself living the life of another Catherine--a girl from the 17th century.  That Catherine, also with two younger siblings, was sent to the isolated barn when plague came to their village--their parents hoped that if the children could survive the winter alone, they would be safe from the sickness.

What follows is a tale of cold and hunger, and longing for home, as the three children eek out their food supply as best they can, all the while fearing the worst for those left behind in the village.   (That being said, for the historic children, I'm not sure if life in the barn was a dramatic reduction in their standard of their living!)  The pain felt by the children, and their mother, is vivid, and the descriptions bring all the details of the past vividly to life.  It's rather a nice survival story--and being a fan of that genre, I appreciated the small triumphs of mushrooms and fleeces and such that kept the children alive.

Modern Catherine is totally immersed in the past--there's no reflection here of any dissonance between past and present.  As a result, it reads more like historical fiction with little end pages of modern times, and not much like a timeslip at all, except right toward the beginning, when Catherine in the present feels the pull of Catherine in the past.  This separation is especially clear at the end, when the modern parents return to the barn and the family is reunited--suddenly the children are back in their own time, and there's no attempt to wrap up the loose ends of the past.  

Did historic Catherine's little brother, who was sick (possibly with plague) at the end of the book, live, for instance?  Did the boy back in the village who Catherine fancied live? I would have liked a coda in which modern Catherine finds something out about what happened to the children in the past.  The abrupt ending was an emotional let-down, especially coming at it did after moments of acute emotional pain when the children were forced to isolate themselves from the very real, horrible, suffering of others.   This is the dilemma that really raises the emotional tension of the story-if someone is suffering, and if to help them means you might die as well, do you put yourself in harm's way and break the promise made to your mother, who might already be dead?

Kids who enjoy learning through historical fiction, enlivened by a touch of the fantastic, will probably enjoy it lots.  It's based on the true story of the village of Eyam in Darbyshire, which cut itself off from the rest of the world when the plague came in 1666--here's more historical background at the author's website.   And those who like stories of kids surviving on their own in harsh circumstances will like it also.  Those who love time travel stories, though, might be disappointed--the story would have been  much the same if the modern children had been cut out altogether.

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