Sunday, September 17, 2017

That Burning Summer by Lydia Syson

It’s the summer of 1940 and Peggy, 16, younger brother Ernest, 11, and their mum have moved in with Uncle Fred and Aunt Myra, sheep farmers in Romney Marsh on the Kentish coast not far from the English Channel. Their father is gone, and Ernest thinks he is fighting in the war, but Peggy seems to know something more about where he is and so do the townspeople, who threat them with some amount of disdain.

Ernest is a bit of a neurotic boy, and like many, he's afraid that the Germans are going to invade any minute. He has gotten hold of the leaflet “If the Invader Comes…” issued by the War Office, which, rather than shoring up his courage, only makes Ernest more fearful.

Out riding his bike one day, Ernest sees a plane catch fire and crash land. When he reports it, as per the leaflet, everyone assumes it was a German plane that was swallowed by the marsh along with the pilot. But during the night, Peggy wakes up and discovers the injured pilot hiding by the henhouse.

It turns out the pilot, Henryk, is a Polish refugee who is flying with the RAF. Peggy decides to hide him in an abandoned church, and brings his clean clothes that belonged to her father, and some food. Henryk doesn’t want to return to the RAF, he has lost is love of flying, and has decided he just can’t fight anymore. As his story unfolds, Peggy learns about his escape from Poland after the Germans invaded, his travels to other countries to fight, and the loss of his family, including the tragic death of his three younger sisters.

Ever vigilant for invading Germans, Ernest eventually finds out about Henryk. As he gets to know him, he’s really torn - wanting to like Henryk but disturbed by what he believes to be Henryk’s LMF or Lack of Moral Fiber. Ernest has been bullied ever since arriving  in Romney Marsh and worries about his own LMF. In his need to prove his courage, Ernest’s wavering leads to all kind of dangerous complications for Peggy and Henryk, who meanwhile are finding themselves attracted to each other.

That Burning Summer is told from the alternating points of view of Peggy, Henryk, and Ernest. It begins with a copy of the leaflet from the War Office, and each of the seven chapter begins with the instructions of what to do in case of an invasion, instructions that are reflected in Ernest’s struggles with his fears of an invasion, his own possible lack of courage, and later with his feelings about Henryk. I though Syson did a masterful job of weaving each instruction into the unfolding of Ernest's story without making it sound forced.

But this is really Peggy’s coming of age story. Unlike her friend, Peggy doesn't really have feelings about boys, and certainly not about her own sexuality. Readers watch as she discovers her developing feelings for Henryk, and becomes aware of her budding sexuality. Besides the coming of age theme That Burning Summer also explores ideas of courage, cowardice, family, and loyalty in all her characters.

It is not a well-known fact that many Polish pilots flew for the RAF after their country was invaded and Syson brings how it came about nicely as Henryk's story unfolds. In addition, Syson includes interesting everyday details about wartime life in a small village, and a sub-story about where Peggy and Ernest’s father really is and why, along with a mystery as to who is sending cruel notes to their Mum. Another sub-story concerns an opportunistic bully who seems to know just how to get under Ernest’s skin, adding realism and depth to the novel. 

The novel really only covers the events of the summer and early fall of 1940, but there is also an epilogue set in 1946 that brings readers up-to-date with Peggy and Henryk's fate. 

That Burning Summer is a historical fiction novel that should appeal to readers who are interested in WWII, and especially those who also like a touch of romance.  

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was a PFD received from the author

FYI: "If the Invader Comes" Leaflet (click to enlarge)

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