Mrs King has a job on her hands. She’s teaching Year 6 (including Alan) about the terrors of World War I – from soldiers’ rotten feet and rats as big as cats in the trenches to Franz Ferdinand and how it all started. ‘Wars don’t come from nowhere,’ she says. That’s important to Year 6 since, as Alan knows, his own country is on the edge of war. He lives in the UK, except this UK is now called Albion and the coming conflict is Albion versus The Rest of the World. Especially Mainland Europe. He’s not sure whose side he’s meant to be on. Next morning, Mrs King is gone. No explanation. And she’s not the first to be disappeared.
Alan was named after Alan Turing – his Dad’s job is something to do with secrets and codes, which also fascinate Alan. The build-up to war began before Alan was born, when ‘England decided it didn’t like Europe any more’. England turned into Albion, Scotland and Cornwall left the Union and became Caledonia and Kernow. People whisper about the Resistance, or mutter that so-and-so is a Traitor. Laws dictate that women and girls must be chaperoned at all times. Cities have adopted names from older times – the capital is now Londinium while Alan lives in Brigstowe, which once was Bristol.
Any adult reader will see that all this began with something very like Brexit – though the word is never used. It is doubtful whether readers of 9+, the age the publishers suggest for the novel, will know much of the Referendum promises of politicians and the complex consequences of the vote. Maybe they will simply read the novel as a fictional dystopia.
Alan’s Mum died in giving birth to Sam, now aged 5. As war approaches, Dad decides it’s time to take his boys to safety with friends in Kernow. They head for a rural commune, largely made up of women and girls, just across the Tamar, in an area known as No Man’s Land. Dad delivers the boys and then he’s gone – back to whatever it is he does. Much of the rest of the novel plays out against the routines and relationships of life in the commune. Some of the women believe that it’s males – all males – who caused the war, and only females will get the country out of it; the novel’s title echoes their belief. The women meet in private – perhaps to plot. The few males are often confused, even aggressive. Alan finds the tension between the genders uncomfortable – he is lonely, but as the days pass, he’s gently welcomed by some of the women, and 12-year-old Poppy becomes a strong friend. Brother Sam takes some looking after too – he’s unusually articulate and aware of others for his years. Alan soon enjoys working around the farm, milking the goats, swimming in the river and learning to row. But he fears for his Dad’s safety and when coded messages no longer arrive from Albion, Alan and Sam slip away from the commune one night to search for their father.
That’s the set-up for a climax which largely avoids any direct action in a war zone. The story is told in short chapters, often through readily accessible dialogue. Serious issues underlie the narrative: racism, immigration, gender stereotyping, the deceptions of arrogant and autocratic government; and what being a hero might entail for a young person. Michael Rosen’s poem, Fascism; I sometimes fear…, is set as a warning Foreword. ‘Fascism arrives as your friend,’ – but one who brings ‘militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution’.
This is strong stuff for readers of 9+. BfK teachers and parents will need to decide what their children might make of it all.