It's 1939, and in London, it seems as if war with Hitler is imminent. Dr. James Hamilton, a dedicated, low-paid London doctor and a widower, is reluctantly sending away his only child, eleven-year-old Tally, on scholarship to Delderton, a boarding school in the south of England, to escape the expected bombardment of London. Tally is furious. "I think sending away children like parcels is wicked and wrong." She cries herself to sleep two nights running, grieved to be leaving her adored father. Tally worries that her new school will be a posh blueblood kind of place like her snobby cousin Margaret's school, where students come from terribly rich families and wear exactly the right clothes. When Tally arrives at Delderton, she finds instead a progressive school where children are expected to take responsibility for their lives, and she is instantly smitten with the place. It has no dress code, no bullying or beatings, no competitive sports, and, most incredibly, no exams. Children are expected to follow their instincts, to take responsibility for their own lives and schooling, and to do what's right. Tally, a sensible and independent girl who shows a natural empathy for everyone she meets, thrives here. As her headmaster describes her, "She is a girl who wants to make the world a better place."
When Tally and a friend go to the cinema in the village one Saturday, they watch a travelogue about the tiny and peaceful kingdom of Bergania and their king, who has stood up to Hitler. Several weeks later, the headmaster receives an invitation from the ministry in London asking if the school would consider sending a group of children to perform at a Folk Dance Festival in Bergania. Tally persuades a group of six classmates to form a team, and though none of them knows the slightest thing about folk dancing, they put together a passable routine. Once in Bergania, Tally feels instantly at home, even on the first day. As she says to her teacher, Matteo, "I feel as though I'm in a place where nothing bad could happen." He replies, "There is no place where nothing bad could happen. Not in the world we live in now."
What starts as an idyllic romp soon becomes a story of life and death, as not everyone in the Berganian government supports the king's stance on Hitler. Soon Tally finds herself immersed in the impending war, meeting and befriending the Crown Prince, 12-year-old Karil, the day before the boy's father is shot and killed by a Nazi assassin. This is a tremendously thoughtful novel that will stay in your head as you turn over its many themes: courage in the face of dictators, the lure of power, the importance of loyalty, and standing up for what's right. It turns into a suspenseful escape thriller when Tally enlists her classmates' help to smuggle Prince Karil out of the country and to safety.
Reviewed by JF.
THEMES: ENGLAND. HISTORICAL FICTION. KINGS AND RULERS. WORLD WAR II.
Dutton Juvenile, 2008
Suggested Ages: 10 and Up