Marcia Williams is known for the witty illustrations accompanying her retellings of classic stories. Now she has written her first novel for children. Narrated as if by nine-year-old Angie Moon, it takes the form of a year’s diary kept while her lifetime friend of the same age, Harry next door, contracts a serious illness. Inter-leaved are old letters from her grandmother, now staying with the family, written but never delivered when she herself was a child interred in the notorious Changi jail in 1942 by the Japanese forces over-running Singapore.
There are elements of repetition as Angie records her growing anger at what she construes as friend Harry’s obstinate refusal to get better, after which the pair can get back to the favourite games in a shared tree-house. But her grandmother’s letters, based on the real-life experience of one Olga Morris, remain riveting reading. She too was a child incarcerated in Changi jail at the same time where families lived in dreadful conditions ruled over by heartless guards. Encouraged by Elizabeth Ennis, a former nurse in the Indian army, a group of eight children became one of the most unusual Girl Guide groups ever to have existed. Their mission was to complete a quilt from bits and scraps around them. Their example was followed by older women, who found ways of inserting messages into their work to be read by the men’s camp next door.
This inspiring story is told bit by bit to Angie and Harry throughout this fine, sensitive novel. It is a little too long and towards the end loses some momentum. Even so, here is a tale well worth telling, with a historical note at the end adding historical perspective to such an otherwise bleak passage of life for those going through it at the time.