This new historical fantasy / timeslip novel by Australian author Susanne Gervay is aimed at middle grade or younger ‘young adult'(YA) readers. I do love a good timeslip story – I still remember the pleasure I had reading Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow and the way it brought Sydney’s past to life. This one moves between 2000 in Sydney, to the winter of 1944 in Budapest, Hungary- perhaps Hungary’s darkest period during WWII. The novel is inspired by the author’s own family’s experiences in Budapest during the Holocaust and I particularly love that Ms Gervay honours her family story in this way.
I think it it always hard, when deciding how much and what to tell youngsters about such awful events, to find that balance between honesty, not minimising the horrors, and respect for the sensitivities of younger readers. In my view this novel strikes the right note, visiting some of the crimes and atrocities committed by Nazis without becoming gratuitous. As always when I read historical fiction that includes events or people about whom I previously knew little, I looked for information on Hungary during WWII, and sure enough found references to the youth underground, the children’s houses in Budapest, the fascist Arrow Cross regime and the war crimes that took place along the banks of the river Danube. There is a terrific section at the back of the book that gives the historical facts of events and people included, in bite sized offerings just right for younger readers.
I found the present tense narrative style, and short, almost staccato sentences, didn’t work for me, but that is just a matter of taste. The main characters (Louie, Bert, Teddy, Grandma and Pa) are believable and likeable and the fantasy elements flow well. I loved the motifs throughout: music, shoes and magnolias connect the past to the present in a natural and evocative way.
The theme of the novel is perhaps summed up well in this quote:
‘Terrible secrets.’ Louie catches her breath.Heroes of the Secret Underground p137
“Terrible secrets,’ Naomi repeats quietly. ‘We have to know the past, otherwise everything’s just a maze. We’re buried in lies and dead ends. It’s hard to find the way out then.’
The three children at the centre of the story travel unwillingly back to a time when terrible deeds were done that became terrible secrets. They find that many things can’t be put right, but that there are some things that can.
Heroes of the Secret Underground will suit middle grade and younger YA readers who enjoy fantasy elements in historical stories that explore some darker moments in history, but also show how unity, friendship and courage can help restore a balance.
Heroes of the Secret Underground is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in April 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.