‘One boy, I believe,’ Mr Bevan says.
I think I might be really sick, properly sick, all over my shoes sick. I just want to go home.
I’m gripping Ronnie’s shoulder so tight I must be hurting him but he’s just watching her. Then the woman called Mrs Thomas looks at me and I get the same smile.
‘I’ve changed my mind, Ceri,’ she says. ‘We can make room for two.’
The Valley of Lost Secrets follows twelve-year-old Jimmy and his little brother Ronnie, as they are evacuated during the Second World War from London to the small town of Llanbryn in Wales. Everything is different and upsetting for Jimmy, especially as his classmates seem to quickly adapt to their new temporary home.
But then he finds something he wasn’t expecting, something closer and scarier than the distant war. And he’s going to have to make an unexpected friend, and do some growing himself, if he wants to find out the secrets of Llanbryn…
The Valley of Lost Secrets is a story set during the war, but not focused on the war; it is really only a backdrop to the events, which feels appropriate given the children’s ages and exposure to it. Instead it is focused on the feelings of being a child who is sent away. Jimmy understands it is for their safety, however this doesn’t prevent him from feeling isolated and resentful, while Ronnie is scared but views it a bit more like an adventure or holiday.
The way Jimmy treats Ronnie is both caring and frustrating; he is very protective of his younger brother, but he also doesn’t like the way Ronnie seems to immediately adapt to the change, and this means he sometimes lashes out. Although his behaviour is sometimes upsetting, both to Ronnie and to Gwen and Alun Thomas who take them in, Parr writes Jimmy in a very sympathetic way meaning that his change in attitude, when it comes, feels natural.
Ronnie is a sweet young boy who, although he may sometimes slip up, obviously looks up to his brother immensely. He doesn’t fully understand the enormity of the situation, which makes it easier for him to adjust. He knows how to wind his brother up, and although he admires Jimmy, he also shows his own strength of character – one scene in particular springs to mind, which I won’t spoil, but you’ll see what I mean once you’ve read it!
Our other main character is Florence, a classmate of Jimmy’s and fellow evacuee. Without spoiling too much, it is obvious that Florence has an unhappy home life, but in Llanbryn she thrives. Although this annoys Jimmy at first, given his own level of discomfort, they form an unlikely friendship that help gives him a sense of perspective. Florence is a great example of how someone can really come into their own when given the chance – I think she was probably my favourite character!
One of the things that I really enjoyed about the book, and I’ve noticed happening more in older children’s books, is fleshed out adult characters. They’re not so overbearing as to take the focus away from the children, but they have their own lives and backstories that help the world feel more realistic. Each adult that features feels unique, with their own personalities that Parr weaves perfectly into the story.
Parr’s writing style suits the story well, from the description of the streets, to the Welsh language endearments or colloquialisms that pepper the text (don’t worry, you understand them from the context if you’re not a Welsh speaker). The subplots do not take away from the “main” storyline; rather they all come together in a satisfying way that doesn’t feel forced. The mystery itself is intriguing, with an answer that is perfect, yet completely unexpected.
Overall, this is a thrilling and touching story about change, family, and friendship, and also about giving people the chance – to support you, and surprise you. Setting the “mystery” storyline aside briefly, I feel that the story is a good look at the evacuee experience, showing both positives and negatives from both sides. There are some slightly dark or grim moments, so I might not recommend it for young children, but there is also a lot of hope, courage and love. An excellent debut novel from Lesley Parr, and I look forward to seeing what she writes next!
Note: this review has been written after reading a proof copy of the book provided digitally by Bloomsbury. Nothing has been offered in exchange. The Valley of Lost Secrets comes out January 2021.