World War II comes too close to home for a boy growing up in a Welsh coal-mining village.
Eleven-year-old Anthony Jones, youngest son of a family of miners, spends his hardscrabble but exuberant days playing games with his gang of friends in a den they’ve crafted on local mountain Pen Pych, fending off the school bully, and listening to dramas on a secondhand radio. The possibility of a scholarship that would send Anthony to a grammar school (and thus keep him out of the mines) and rumors of the arrival of American forces threaten this routine. Then a German plane crashes into Pen Pych, and, the next day, the boys find in their den a wounded Polish prisoner of war, Piotr Skarbowitz, who parachuted from the plane before it crashed. Piotr is taken in by the Jones family and develops a special relationship with both Anthony and Anthony’s sister, Bethan, who works at the RAF field in nearby St. Athan, but he's virtually adopted by the entire village: the schoolteacher wants him to speak to her class, the baker provides free treats. When the American troops finally arrive, “It’s like the world has come to pay us a visit.” Author Kennedy (The Killing Handbook, 2012) ably handles a large cast of villagers and the point of view of a young boy without falling into sentimentality. The novel is at its best when it brings to vivid life the speech and routines of these hardworking people, their tragedies, stoicism, and modest romances, a way of life threatened by outsiders. A dance held at the GI base brings this tension to a head when the local girls refuse to dance with their neighbors, wanting to “save themselves so they could be asked by an American.” A plot twist involving Piotr provides a burst of drama and action but feels slightly out of place in this gentle world.
A vividly evoked, keenly detailed coming-of-age story.