It is the first April since the Great War, and spring 1919 brings welcome blue skies and the anticipation of new beginnings. For Ben and Lotti, it also heralds the most fantastical adventure, as the fellow orphans embark on a self-manned boat journey to France, in search of missing loved ones. An old-fashioned tale of valour and determination, Voyage of the Sparrowhawk by Natasha Farrant has just scooped the Costa 2020 Children’s Book Award. It is a novel rich with the kindness of strangers and the affecting consequences of war.
Ben and Lotti’s friendship is forged on curious coincidences. Both are orphaned, desperately lonely, and emotionally connected to Northern France; Ben because his adoptive brother, Sam, has been declared missing in military service there, and Lotti because it’s where her beloved grandmother lives.
As an uncared for minor, Ben is in danger of being whisked into care by the authorities. For Lotti, desperate to escape her ghastly guardian aunt and uncle, running away to find their respective family members in France seems like the obvious solution. And happily, Ben is in possession of a colourful narrowboat, the Sparrowhawk, in which to do it.
‘It was madness. It was dangerous. It was…irresistible.’
It’s all these things and more, as the Sparrowhawk swaps rural canals for the mighty Thames, and ultimately the Channel to Calais. But narrowboats have no place on the open sea and the water is becoming choppy, both literally and metaphorically, as Ben and Lotti are pursued by storm clouds, Lotti’s vengeful uncle, and a very tenacious policeman. Will they ever reach their continental destination?
Farrant’s immersive tale celebrates the thrillingly autonomous children of bygone literature, although she reminds us that even the most resourceful children occasionally need the aid of a sensible adult. In this case, each adult character’s decision to help is plausibly informed by their own painful experience of the Great War, the aftermath of which is woven throughout this excellently executed novel.
Voyage of the Sparrowhawk by Natasha Farrant is published by Faber and Faber, 368 pages.