First of all, I warn you that this is a very long piece, unusually long. Why? This is a book that means a great deal to me as a reader, particularly as a Jewish reader, because it begins to grapple with questions I was asking about 20 years ago—and I’ve been looking for books dealing with these questions for about that long, too. Books like that don’t get quick and light reviews; books that make you think and mean that much to you deserve context, they deserve thought and analysis.
It is tempting to say this book is an original and powerful exploration of growing up in unprecedented times, but that would be to diminish it. I could say it’s a book of historical fiction set over the course of the period before, through, and in the immediate aftermath of WWII in Britain and Germany. That sounds dreary and like a book it is Our Very Stuffy Duty to Read, though, and this is not in the least a dreary, dutiful book. It is, against all odds, a book with quickness, humanity, and humour, it is deft and feels light to read—even as it is weighty with meaning and tells you of heartbreak and pain, as well as of hope for tomorrow.
One of the remarkable things about Hilary McKay’s writing is, in fact, how hard it is to pin down what’s remarkable about it in words. I still haven’t reviewed her novel The Time of Green Magic because it’s so incredibly beautiful, funny, and it’s a powerful reading experience in a way I can’t quite nail in words. So I gave up before I tried and now I’m cleverly slipping my recommendation in here to ask you to read it. (Read it aloud to your family, that’s my advice. It’s how I did it, and it was the single most successful read-aloud we’ve had as a family. I think it’s the closest we’ve come to a new Diana Wynne Jones or Joan Aiken book in a very long time.)
But I’m sliding away from this, her latest, The Swallows’ Flight (out in the USA on October 19) because that’s another one that’s hard to nail. However, since Hilary McKay generously mailed me an advance proof to me from England despite crazy Covid-and-everything-else messing up the mail service, I just can’t give up and not tell you about it. Besides, it’s so new and meaningful I need to add my voice to the chorus of recommendations. And there was something so incredibly powerful about reading it during the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a complete challenge to that first, reductive reviewer impulse: what is “unprecedented”, after all? (A side note: pandemics are not unprecedented, nor are political upheavals in the midst of pandemics. Please.)
I have to start with the book that technically precedes The Swallows’ Flight, originally titled The Skylarks’ War in the UK, published as Love to Everyone in the USA (with an unbelievably lovely cover by Rebecca Green), and then, when released in paperback in the USA, the paperback used the UK title and cover art. I’m only going into all that because you have to read it, and you should know there are two titles and two covers but the same wonderful book, so don’t get (too) confused—just read it.
I’ll be upfront: you do not technically need to have read The Skylarks’ War to understand The Swallows’ Flight. The stories are distinct, they will stand alone (again, rather like Diana Wynne Jones’s style of writing, if you think of her Chrestomanci books). That said, you will better appreciate The Swallows’ Flight for having read the first book, both in terms of appreciating the characters and in terms of immersing yourself in the nuances and the impossibly straightforward intricacies of Hilary McKay’s style of telling you a story. Besides, it’s a wonderful book and you won’t regret reading it. Even if she does smash your heart to pieces at one point I won’t mention. (I just re-read it to get to write this from a fresher memory and I cried all over again.)
In The Skylarks’ War, Hilary McKay takes us through the period leading up to WWI and through the war with a set of characters who are so vividly real you look up from the book expecting them to be sitting across from you, doing schoolwork or figuring out meal planning despite rations. At the end, you’re sad the book is over because you’ve come to love them so much you just need to know what they’re doing tomorrow. Oh, and you’ve also lived through the horrors of WWI, incidentally, and yet… not incidentally at all; it’s in the marrow of the book. A taste? I’ll give you her description of the Western front: “The line was the shape of a long, lopsided smile. A ravenous, expectant smile. A greedy, unreasonable smile, considering how very, very well it was fed.” (p. 214 in the hardback, US edition of Love to Everyone.)
This style (the vivid characters, the tangible reality of life, and the sense of history being contemporary) is definitely the background to The Swallows’ Flight, but Hilary McKay pushes the envelope with a calmness and fearlessness that’s breathtaking although I can sort of imagine her reading that and saying briskly, “Nonsense. I just told the story, you know.” (When I finished reading the book I wrote to her to say that I greatly admired her use of silences and deliberate pauses in the book and she replied that, oh, no, the silences are mostly where she got stuck. I blinked, and I’m going to be terribly arrogant and argue with the actual author: There’s so much richness to those pauses and silences that it reminds me of my impulse in university to write an essay about the vivid use of silence in King Lear, thinking of Cordelia, and how I related Shakespeare’s silences to Berlioz’s powerful rests in La symphonie fantastique… But I digress.)
So Hilary McKay, to our great delight, writes more for us about those friends from The Skylarks’ War! And yet, The Swallows’ Flight does not open with our friends in Britain. She begins in Germany.
I feel like inserting a comic book sound effect:
That’s a shocker, after reading a WWI book about these English folks and falling in love with them, isn’t it? Facing the onset of WWII in Germany??? How and why and—
And now I’m going to tell you a story.
I don’t really remember how old I was when I learned about the Holocaust. Too young, I expect. I vaguely remember hearing the name “Hitler” and saying: “who’s that?” And my sister, amazed, replied, “You don’t know who Hitler was?” And my parents shushed her and tried an explanation. Over time, though, I know that I learned too much, too young, because I got scared at nights. I’d hear a dog and see a light through the window at night and as a shadow passed I’d think of the Gestapo knocking on doors. Also, I found my mind grinding on a question: “What about the ordinary German soldiers? Not the Gestapo, not the SS. What about those who were drafted to fight on the front lines, willing or unwilling? Who were they?”
I remember feeling guilty for wondering that. If they were fighting for Hitler, they were Bad People. Brainwashed, maybe? But there’s no possible way they were Ordinary People, because Ordinary People are Good, and if they were Good People they would have refused, would have gone in the Resistance, would have stood up to the regime. They can’t have been Good.
Of course, as I grew, my impressions did, as well: “How do Good People come to do Bad Things?” I grew even older, like actually 16 years old or something, when you’re definitely so grown up, right? And I soon learned that was an entire topic of research, with studies and data and all that stuff. But still I gnawed on my questions periodically: “But who were the ordinary soldiers, infantry, foot soldiers being sent out? Why did they fight?” And I still got occasional bouts of sleeplessness, and I still thought of the Gestapo at night if I read a book or saw a movie about the Holocaust. And I don’t think I ever questioned directly why people (“people” being, by nature, a group of individuals) were talking about historical groups of “people” as indistinct masses entirely lacking in individuals.
This is where we have a montage of calendar sheets whipping across the screen as we advance towards the 2020 elections…
And now we’re in 2020 but we’re looking back towards 2016, saying things like, “Remember people saying Trump wasn’t really racist? Remember people saying he wouldn’t try to sway or overturn elections? Remember when it seemed alarmist to talk about the rise of fascism in a country like the USA?” Ah, nostalgia! I wipe a tear from the corner of my eye, facetiously. What we may have elided from memory is that at the time of the 2020 elections, many celebrities started to come out to push people to vote in such numbers that the outcome would be indisputable. And after the attack on the Capitol, a second flood of messages went out.
One of the most famous clips was Arnold Schwarzenegger talking about his painful past, growing up after WWII, among, as it were, Ordinary People who had fought for a terrible regime.
To me, this was important in taking a wobbly step towards answering my childhood questions: people just did the next thing and the next thing, he said, and found themselves fighting for Hitler, and then, in his words, “I was surrounded by broken men drinking away the guilt over their participation in the most evil regime in history.” He continued, “They were in physical pain from the shrapnel in their bodies, and in emotional pain from what they saw or did.” Oof.
I’m a Jew. That means that to me, the immediate story was always that set of his last words: “what they saw or did,” those participants in Hitler’s regime—what they did to my people. But I needed to know how they did it, because the secondary story was always “could it happen again?” Living through 2020 felt just a tad bit too real for comfort. So what we need, in my view, is to answer those difficult childhood questions of mine about the ordinary people—not, I want to state firmly, as Research Questions on How Good People Did Bad Things, but as individuals, as Schwarzenegger described. I’m sorry, scientists (talking to my husband here) but data sets can’t predict individuals’ feelings, and feelings can and do precipitate surprising actions.
Let’s have an analogy. I was recently doing some research on music as therapy for a side project. That means I inevitably encountered the “Mozart is so good for babies!” chirpy research. One item I read took it quite far, one might say, if you’ve got my sense of humour, hilariously far, because it did consider the next questions. Questions like: hm, maybe you could use other Classical music with your babies? There are composers beyond Mozart, right? But the author sort of balked there: be careful these non-Mozart composers aren’t overstimulating their tender brains, this book added anxiously. I wasn’t sure, based on the book, what was acceptable. Consier: if you’re pregnant, that tender zygote may get badly overstimulated by… I wasn’t sure about that bit, honestly, maybe Gluck’s Orfeo would be just too much… and then… OK well the book didn’t say what would happen if the fetus were overstimulated by this untested, non-Mozart-music. I got the impression that had the author encountered the question of what pieces by Mozart to introduce your fetus-to-child-to at what ages and when you can move from, say, the clarinet concerto to opera, that author may have needed to be handed the sal volatile and shown to a fainting couch. Could we distinguish between the stimulations of Papageno and Sarastro? What about Don Giovanni vs The Magic Flute? I have no idea. Neither did the author, I assure you.
I’m guessing we’re all giggling together here, unless I’ve offended you, in which case… I’m sorry, but to me it is very funny. It’s utterly absurd to treat the entire, diverse musical oeuvre of such a composer as Mozart as a single unit, isn’t it? Hah! And every other composer as another unit, to be treated with caution? That’s adorable, really.
Fine, but Mozart was one composer and both Eine kleine Nachtmusik and his Requiem come from the same person with the same mind and the same brain though at different times. They are, in effect, more of a unit than masses of individuals who were all treated as a single mass in warfare—but weren’t.
So why do we treat the entire non-Jewish population of Germany as a unit to be researched and understood like a data set and then get shocked that we don’t understand the situation?
Hilary McKay did something phenomenal to balance that “People As Big Data” scenario:
She didn’t write a Holocaust book. Instead, she looked and said “the Holocaust is not my story, but I can train a broader lens here.” This is a historical fiction book set in the period around WWII in Britain and Germany. This book does not directly address or describe the Holocaust at all, which makes perfect sense coming from a non-Jewish author, and is the only proper way to grapple the question of the war and the individuals of the story, as well as that “ordinary people” question. (To reassure readers: yes, she does contend with the situation of the Jews, including British Jews’ and non-Jews’ reactions to Kristallnacht, with a sensitivity for which I was grateful as a Jewish reader, but she very firmly states it is not her place to tell the story of what Jews suffered, so she doesn’t.)
OK so after way, way too many words of background I’m getting to the book. I’m extremely sorry, but this was all necessary, at least to me.
Hilary McKay’s approach is extremely direct: rather than dealing with Germany, Britain, and the world as a whole, she gets to know people. Her way of doing that is that of the storyteller or novelist: her cast of characters is a few family units who know each other. By showing us a tableau of individuals with different personalities, abilities, backgrounds, sympathies, and sensitivities forming relationships with each other across a single timeframe and a variety of geographies she is able to do much, much more than any analysis which treats the generality of the human population like so many data points or a colony of fruit flies to be analyzed en masse.
Hilary McKay builds these relationships between families and their friends in Germany, then over in Britain. As war is declared, boundaries blur and people travel, relationships break and are formed. Characters grow, develop, learn, mature, cry, and are bowed with grief. Because we see them as people, indeed they really are people, our minds stretch to see how people in Britain and Germany reacted to their time and space in new ways.
I’m feeling myself get excited here because Hilary McKay exemplifies the value of imaginative literature here. It’s an exercise for the brain—what Diana Wynne Jones calls a way of training our minds to solve problems. Imagination isn’t merely escape from reality, though it can be, and that’s a matter of value in its own right. Better yet, though, it’s a way to cure hurt and solve problems with those two words: “What if…?” By going “Well, what if we put this sort of person in this sort of situation…” an author can imagine a world and come up with an answer to how such and such would even go.
This is where I’m going to write in two branches. First, I’m going to try to write a relatively brief (hah, but really I am— if a little late) review of the book in general terms, spoiler free. Next, I’m going straight to the spoiler zone in order to analyze a few points of plot and character to pieces. (I’m telling myself this is legitimate because I made my husband read this book before I wrote it up and after we discussed it, I felt there were points that merited extra attention. OK, I’m definitely into this book, let me talk, got it?)
The structure of this book isn’t the traditional, straightforward, lyrical narrative of The Skylarks’ War, which very much follows Clarry, at least initially, and only later quietly fractures, with the war, into other characters’ points of view. The Swallows’ Flight, from the very beginning, is splintered into numerous parallel narratives. Practically speaking, there are all of the lovely characters we met last time, and surely we need to catch up with them—but then why start in Germany? And who is the dog who shows up? And why? Hilary McKay throws us off-balance, from the first page, by wrapping us in love, trust, and intimacy while we’re expecting to go into warfare and instability. And that, in and of itself, is a destabilizing act. Then the trust and openness break into silences and troubled thoughts, as war comes once more. As we progress, each chapter break sends us elsewhere in time, space, and character viewpoint, but with such Hilary McKay’s brisk, confident narrative voice and style it’s never confusing. The march of the book takes us through increasing tension in Germany: our characters there start to lower their voices or simply refrain from discussing certain things, and ultimately are sent to war. In Britain, we’ve been busy falling in love with the kids of our friends from the last book—only to see them head off to war, too. And that dog? The dog pulls it together, all in the life of a dog.
It’s a beautiful, woven book. Not a pure “and then” narrative, but more like the Bayeux Tapestry: moving from scene to scene, all in an overarching tight shape. In true Hilary McKay form, you won’t find a single extraneous word.
To get more into the nitty gritty now.
Hilary McKay starts with a new character, Erik, who has rescued a nest of baby swallows, and when he’s trying to feed them insects to keep them alive and bring them up so they can fly away, he recognizes he needs to recruit helpers. He swaps his own small treasures for insects, and thus makes friends with Hans, who is so taken by the swallows that he helps find insects without swapping for them. They watch the birds fly away, Erik almost tumbles out the window from exhaustion since he’s been hunting insects and feeding the baby birds nonstop, Hans pulls him back… and they become fast friends.
So we start with a pair of fast friends. They can tell each other everything. Just like Erik, who lives alone with his mother since his father died for Germany in WWI, can tell his mother everything, and she trusts him absolutely.
Except, of course, these warm, loving ties can’t extend to perfect confidence in Hitler’s Germany.
Fraulein Trisk, Erik’s neighbour, he notices, is no longer there at some point. He asks his mother after her, recalling that she used to light her stove on Saturdays. No, his mother says, flustered, on Sundays, definitely not on Saturdays. Erik is quiet, recalling that Trisk is a Jewish name.
That’s an example of one of the silences I remarked on above, that Hilary McKay uses so deftly.
Ruby Amaryllis never tells her brother, Will, she forgives him for his jealous nastiness to her as a child. He never tells her he is sorry.
And the power of their reconciliation is one of the most beautiful, truly breathtaking moments at the end of the book. I will be honest: I did not think she could pull that off. I was so angry at Will. And yet their reconciliation was moving and believable. We, the readers, can still be angry at Will, and yet, with Ruby, forgive him. Just as, in life, we may forgive a wrong, but the memory of the wrong still provokes a surge of anger.
How does Hilary McKay navigate these multifaceted plots with a variety of viewpoints punctuated by potent silences?
Like this: You, the reader, know full well that it’s hard to say: “I get it now. We had to make up with each other. It was a two-way street, and I wasn’t ready, either. I’m ready now. Are you?” Ruby couldn’t, quite. Neither could Will. They found their own language, and we got to listen in. That’s not to say they’re ideal, in fact. It’s to say, actually, that they’re imperfect. A full, open, wordy heartfelt conversation would be a therapist’s ideal conclusion for them. They’d cry, probably. But this was far more real to the characters, and to the reader.
Erik and Hans, too, have a complex conclusion. They’re beautiful characters. We have to face that they’re Germans, they were fighting on the wrong side. There is, as my husband said, a bit of idealization in their being moved out of the action early (I won’t say how, even as I’m spoiling things here), but it’s necessary to understanding who they are, no matter how improbable the circumstances. And yet—poor Hans. At least Erik knows his mother was (silently) doing the right thing. Hans is grieving his lost sister who was, in part, miserable she couldn’t do more of the wrong thing. An extra burden to bear. And one which is entirely, completely unspoken. And believable, deeply true even if the characters are fictional.
We never see, in action, the ends of some of the characters’ stories—but they, too, feel far too true. Uncle Karl. I will say no more.
Diana Wynne Jones repeated, forcefully, in the essays and speeches I’ve been reading in the glorious volume Reflections: On the Magic of Writing that it’s important to know your characters intimately—but you shouldn’t feel obligated to share every detail; if you know them well, everything will come across. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this more potently than in reading The Swallows’ Flight. In this brief book, I travelled far and deep with every character, and learned an enormous amount about the real powers of imagination and character. The essential importance of fiction to understanding reality, to learning history, is boundless, and I feel that too often we say treat it as a very nice way to keep children engaged, you know, and get them interested in reality, where reality is supposed to be data sets which teach us to reduce real people to blocks in a row of a study. Well, everyone has a story. Hilary McKay reminds us of that with a vigor for which I’m grateful.
Hilary McKay’s characters, as she knows them and you will know them, are very human. This means they’re heartrendingly imperfect. Hans, again, has to grapple with a wide variety of types in his family. We see the flaws alongside the warmth. I’m imperfect. You’re imperfect. Hilary McKay would fully admit she’s imperfect.
But one thing is perfect in my eyes: Finally, someone took the step to think the hard, uncomfortable thoughts about being flawed, struggling humans in the inhumane landscape of WWII, on the wrong side.