Monday, March 28, 2016

Listen To The Moon by Michael Morpurgo

Fourteen year old Alfie Wheatcroft and his family live in Veronica Farm on the island of Bryher one of the Isles of Scilly of the coast of Cornwall. Although Alfie's mother, Mary warned him to go to school when his father Jim arrives at his boat on Green Bay, intending to go out for the day, Alfie is there waiting. The two spend time fishing for mackerel but when they catch little, Alfie suggests they go in closer to St. Helen's an isolated island where an old quarantine house, Pest House, sits abandoned. Alfie's father is not keen to do this but allows Alfie to row them in near the sandy beach to try their luck. Both Alfie and his father hear what seems to be a child crying. Scared they beach their boat and soon discover that they are hearing a child, crying and coughing and it is coming from the Pest House.

Alfie discovers a pale, sick child hiding in the fireplace of the ruined Pest House, shivering and wrapped in a blanket. Terrified the young girl tries to run away but collapses. Alfie and his father put the girl in the boat and take her back to Green Bay. They are met by Mary and many others who live on the island. Mary orders someone to send for Dr. Crow on St. Mary's. The girl momentarily awakens and whispers "Lucy" leaving those around her to believe that she is named Lucy. Lucy is taken to the Wheatcroft home at Veronica Farm. Dr. Crow encourages Lucy to eat and drink as she is feverish and dehydrated.  Alfie's cousin, Dave Bishop visits after the doctor leaves and tells Jim and Mary Wheatcroft that he went over to St. Helen's and found a grey sodden blanket and a bedraggled teddy bear. The blanket has the name Wilhelm on it and immediately Cousin Dave jumps to the conclusion that Lucy is German and a "lousy Hun". Alfie's mother threatens Cousin Dave, telling him he is to tell no one about the name on the blanket. He promises reluctantly.

At first the Wheatcrofts believe that Lucy doesn't speak because she might be German and therefore not understand English. However Alfie believes that Lucy does understand but for some reason cannot speak.
June 1915 and with no end to the war in sight, the islanders are growing more apprehensive especially as the papers are filled with "daily reports of ever mounting casualties, those dreadful long lists in the papers of the killed, the wounded and the missing in action." The Isles of Scilly had had the bodies of four drowned Royal Navy sailors washed ashore in recent months. Lucy Lost as she is now referred to, continues to live with Alfie's family while people  speculate on who she was and how she came to be on St. Helen's.

All of the Wheatcrofts must deal with harassment from the islanders. Jim is teased about finding mermaids while Mary must fend off constant questions about Lucy when she visits her brother Billy. Mary goes every day to visit her brother, called Uncle Billy by her family. She rescued him from the County Asylum in Bodmin where he was located after going missing following the death of his wife and baby. Billy who doesn't speak or interact much with the islanders, lives in the boat house on Green Bay. Most of his time is spent restoring an old ship, the Hispaniola which he intends to sail some day. Alfie too is quizzed by the teachers at school and is taunted by Zebediah Bishop,  Cousin Dave's son. Eventually Alfie has enough and the two ending fighting and receiving detention from the mean-spirited headmaster, Mr. Beagley. During detention Alfie learns that Cousin Dave has broken his promise not to tell about the blanket with the German writing on it.

Despite Lucy's silence, Alfie likes being with her. He spends time talking to her in the hopes that she will gradually begin to talk again. Lucy however seems unable to respond. Dr. Crow is concerned that Lucy has been deeply traumatized leaving her unable to speak. He believes that if she does not recover they will have to send her to the mental hospital, something  He insists that the Wheatcrofts attempt to get Lucy out of bed and to that end he brings his gramophone. The gramophone seems to draw Lucy's attention, so much so that she begins to play Dr. Crow's records constantly and is especially fond of Mozart's Andante Grazioso. Unfortunately this does not help her to talk. Lucy however gradually becomes more involved in life at the Wheatcrofts; she waits for Alfie to return from school and begins to accompany him in the morning when he opens up the henhouse. She even begins to ride Peg, the island's temperamental horse. But Lucy still refuses to speak, even when the Headmaster Beagley orders the Wheatcrofts to send her to school. It takes a second tragedy and Uncle Billy and the Hispaniola that finally solve the mystery of Lucy Lost.

Discussion

Listen To The Moon is a novel set in the summer of 1915 on the Isles of Scilly off the Cornwall coast. What will someday be known as The Great War is only ten months along. Like most people, the islanders believed the war would be over by Christmas but by May 1915, the number of dead is quickly mounting. The Isles have casualties among their own and hatred of the Germans or anything German is high. Germany, attempting to blockade the British Isles threatens to sink any ships flying the British flag. The Lusitania was one of the largest ocean liners traveling the Atlantic in 1915. The ship was traveling from New York to Liverpool when she was sunk by a German submarine on May 7th. Over a thousand people died in the sinking. The ship sank off the Old Head of Kinsale and many locals set out in boats to rescue people. It is claimed that a grand piano was found floating in the sea with a little girl on it as is described in Listen To The Moon.

Listen To The Moon tells the fictional story of Merry MacIntyre who along with her mother, was on her way to England to visit her soldier-father. Merry's father was originally from Toronto but like many of his generation decided to fight for his ancestral homeland, Britain, in the First World War. By the time the war began, Merry's father and mother lived in New York. With her father wounded and stationed at a hospital in England, Merry and her mother decide to travel there to visit him.  However readers do not know this part of the story until part way through. Morpurgo begins with Alfie and his family and then switches narratives throughout the story. Alfie's story is told in third person narrative while Dr. Crow, Mr. Beagley and Merry tell their stories in first person.

Listen To The Moon is far too long for a juvenile novel and the pacing is inconsistent at best. Better editing would have eliminated long pages of repetitive passages about Lucy not speaking in the early chapters and considerably shortened the novel. The story itself is interesting but becomes bogged down in details that will make younger reader's interest wane. While Dr. Crow and Mr. Beagley's narratives are interesting, they could have been shorter and in the case of Mr. Beagley's, probably eliminated entirely.

Morpurgo does his usual excellent job of creating the setting for the novel which is the Isles of Scilly. A map of the isles would have been helpful in orienting young readers.

The simple life of the people is well portrayed as are the attitudes common in the early twentieth century. The anti-German sentiment of the islanders is a main focus of the storyline and is directed towards the little "Lucy Lost" who comes to the island community and the family who generously takes her in. At times the bad treatment of the Wheatcrofts seems overdone, perhaps to demonstrate that such emotions are often not rational.

The novel moves quickly towards a resolution after an unexpected twist in the story. And Morpurgo provides young readers with a bit of information regarding the S.S. Lusitania, the German U-boat campaign, the Isles of Scilly and the S.S. Schiller.

Book Details:

Listen To The Moon by Michael Morpurgo
London: HarperCollins Children's Books     2014
433 pp.

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