World War II just keeps on giving us the best children’s stories. For me they began in 1963 with I Am David by Ann Holm. 1975 gave us the groundbreaking Machine Gunners by Robert Westall and more recently Morris Gleitzman blew me away with the Once trilogy. I can now include Run Rabbit Run by Barbara Mitchelhill to that list.
Published only a few weeks ago, I wondered what Run Rabbit Run could possibly add that was fresh or new to this much-covered genre. The premise is pretty straightforward. 11-year old Lizzie Butterworth lives with her dad, a conscientious objector, and 6-year old brother Freddie in Rochdale. Lizzie’s mum was killed by a bomb falling on the shop in which she worked. There is also spiteful aunt who picks the children up from school and slaps Lizzie’s legs if she’s rude but so far so normal. What gave Run Rabbit Run the twist in the tale; the ‘not been done before’ was the mention of Whiteway.
When Lizzie’s dad William is refused recognition as a conscientious objector and told he has to either fight or go to jail he decides neither is an option if he wants to keep his family together. Instead the three head off for Whiteway, a utopian refuge in the heart of the Gloucestershire countryside. The escape, though uncomfortable at times, is successful and upon arrival the family are welcomed with open arms. For months they live happily, in secret, among other refugees and like-minded people. Of course, this happiness can’t last and when Lizzie sneaks out of the compound to go to the fair, suspicions are aroused and the police are soon on the family’s trail. They flee again but from then on there are no safe refuges only fraught and dangerous ones. The story becomes a quest for survival as William struggles to keep his family together.
Mitchelhill’s story is an engaging story, warmly told. The dangers are real enough but there’s always an underlying reassurance that everything will be all right in the end. Best of all, Whiteway really existed and still exists, as the writer informs us in notes at the end.
I can see Run Rabbit Run being ideal for Y5/6 classes in schools as it doesn’t shy from the period but doesn’t lay it on too thick for the more sensitive pupils, either.
Well done that writer!