Petra Zimmermann Smith, 12, has always imagines that the stones were just like her family - her lighthouse keeper Pa, her German Mutti, her older sister Magda, or Mags, and herself. It's been an almost idyllic life but now World War II has just begun. Soon, there is talk of evacuations, gas masks are being given out and the government is requiring that they paint their beautiful lighthouse green from top to bottom to try to camouflage it from enemy planes. And it doesn't take long for the people of Stonegate village who had always been their friends and neighbors to turn on Pet's family with fear and suspicion because of Mutti being German and, then, sure enough, things begin to take a strange turn.
Pet's idyllic life begins to unravel as a series of disturbing acts of sabotage begin to happen in the village. At home, Mags is acting particularly secretive, disappearing for whole days at a time. And Pet fears that something is up with Mutti, who has begun taking early morning walks alone, and Pa is acting quite secretive and distanced. Pet is fearful that the family bond, once so strong, seems to be eroding before her eyes and she doesn't know why:
"We had always been such a close family, we had always trusted each other, but secrets had started to seep in the gaps between us. And now, like water freezing in the cracked surface of a stone, those secrets were growing colder, harder, starting to force us apart."
Then Mutti, known for her drawing, is classified as an enemy alien, arrested and indefinitely interned "as a matter of national security..." after a package is intercepted containing hand-drawn incriminating maps, charts and records Stonegate village. But when Mutti confesses to being a traitor, even at the risk of a death sentence, Pet begins to question everything she ever believed about her beloved family.
Our Castle by the Sea is definitely not your typical WWII novel, and yet everything is there, dogfights between the RAF and Luftwaffe pilots over the channel, the possible appearance of a German submarine off the Kent coast, the mistreatment and internment of anyone who is German and Italian, the heroic rescue of British and French soldiers from Dunkirk, even some Fifth Columnist and quisling activity, and a setting that is a character in its own right. And as characters go, Pet is hardly what you would expect - afraid of the enemy planes flying over head, living in the shadow of her spirited and determined sister, a girl who prefers the isolation of the lighthouse and her drawing pad and pencils. and who relates to the story of the Daughters of Stone perhaps a little too much.
But what elevates this novel to a thriller is Pet's fascination with the legend of the Daughters of Stone, a legend she relates to a little too much, and her suspicions and the assumptions she makes about her own family. It is a novel where no one is who they appear to be but its hard to know if they are up to good nor something else and Pet, with no one she can trust to turn to, is on her own to figure it all out.
All through Our Castle by the Sea, I kept thinking there was going to be some magical realism because of the high level of suspense wrapped around the legend, but what I got was so much better. Instead of magical realism, Strange uses Pet's sensory feelings to heighten the perception of unreality and other worldliness that pervade her thinking, all the while keeping her in reality.
My only regret about Our Castle by the Sea is that I can't read it again for the first time and once more savor the mystery of it all.
You can download an excellent Teaching Guide for this book courtesy of the publisher, Chicken House.
Our Castle by the Sea will be available in the United States on April 30, 2019
This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss+