This book is a modern retelling of E Nesbit’s famous story. The narrator is ten-year-old Phoebe, She has a brother Perry who is on the autistic spectrum and who is obsessed with trains. She also has a sister Becks who is aged 14. The children live with their mother and their script-writer father whom Phoebe idolises.
Shortly after the novel opens the children’s father mysteriously disappears. Phoebe is distraught. Somehow she invents a story to explain her father’s disappearance. He was once the scriptwriter of a much-loved children’s TV show. Phoebe believes he has gone to a lonely island to attempt to reboot that show. The more sinister truth will be revealed far later in the book.
The disappearance of the father has financial repercussions. The children and their mother are obliged to move to a dilapidated cottage in the English countryside. The cottage stands very near to the Primrose Railway line, a heritage railway staffed by volunteers. The children become heavily involved in the community centred on the railway. In this community they find solace to comfort them for their absent father.
The book has strengths that readers of countless earlier volumes have learned to expect from Dame Jacqueline. The character of Perry and the way he responds to his autism are carefully researched and sympathetically depicted. Wilson also gives a touching account of the relationship between Phoebe and Mr Thomas Brown, who is the leading figure at the railway. She also gives a convincing account of the way a family responds to the revelation of a dark secret – in this case touching upon the fate of the children’s father. Dean’s illustrations often spill across the page and vividly bring to life the heritage railway. There is however one uncharacteristic weakness in the narrative. The build-up to the revelation about the father’s movements is too protracted. The reader must get almost to the end of an exceptionally long novel before the truth is disclosed.
For young readers who find themselves enmeshed in complex family situations the book will provide a valuable guide. Teachers at KS2 will find the book a means to open the eyes of pupils to difficult and demanding family situations, as well as an example of how to retell a classic children’s novel.