Jackie French, Secret sparrow, HarperCollins Publishers, November 2023, 256 pp., RRP $17.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781460760468
French’s latest book is for an older audience. Her main character, Jean McLain is 16 but pretends to be 21 so she can go over to France to work as a signaller during World War I. Her two older brothers are already serving, and their childhood games teaching Jean morse code have ensured that she is the fastest sender and receiver in the British postal service. Without men at home, girls have become essential in allowing domestic affairs to continue.
However, the story doesn’t start with Jean’s war involvement. Instead, French begins in 1978 Australia with a flood emergency. 14-year-old Arjan is almost washed away when a shopping centre built on a flood plain is overwhelmed with rising river water. Jean, on a motorcycle, rescues him and they end up on a small hill huddled around a rubbish bin. To survive the night, Jeans shares her story with the sodden teen, and uses every bit of her experience to keep them alive. Readers are taken back and forth between 1917 and 1978, while French once again, does what she does best: Show what life was like for women during war time, dissect decisions made at a big picture level and how they impacted the lives of everyday soldiers and ask readers to step into other shoes of people who are forced into unimaginably bad circumstances but manage to find moments of good.
It’s compelling reading. We know that not everyone will come back from war. We want to know how Jean ends up in Australia, and we are alongside Arjan as he benefits from Jean’s knowledge and empathy. It’s great to jump forward at the end to the future to see the wonderful long term effect Jean has had on Arjan’s life.
Secret Sparrow will be enjoyed by anyone who loves Jackie French’s writing, who loves an immersive historical story, or who loves to see a side of war not often represented.
Reviewed by Trish Buckley