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Secret Sparrow

By Jackie French

Reviewed by Mia Macrossan

I have lost count of the number of books Jackie has written. She has been a constant source of inspiring and uplifting historical fiction my whole career and her interest and passion for history never flags. Recently she has been writing about  unknown episodes in our past, e.g. The Great Gallipoli Escape and revealing the unrecorded role of women with the Girls Who Changed the World series. With Secret Sparrow she has produced another winning story, full of tension and excitement that holds the reader in its grip until the satisfying and moving end.
The story opens in a country town in 1978 where a flash flood has forced a young boy, Arjun, and a weather beaten old woman, Jean McLain, to take refuge together on a hill. While they wait for rescue they talk. She tells Arjun of her work during World War I when she was a signaller in the army. Then the story switches back to 1917 when sixteen year old Jean McLain , a post office assistant wins a national Morse code competition and is reluctantly recruited by the British army to become a secret signaler in France. They have lost so many men that women are taking up all sorts of positions previously thought unthinkable.
The story switches between the two stranded people and Jean’s experiences in France. We follow her as she is trained, meets the love of her love en route to France only to lose him when the ship is mined. She works long punishing hours in  Rouen living in barracks, eating army food (terrible) not allowed to leave her post no matter what the circumstances. It is ‘simultaneously extraordinarily exciting and the most boring time she had ever known’ p 70. When the push comes to break through the Hindenburg line she is sent to the front and takes part in the Battle of Cambrai which marked a pivotal moment during the closing stages of World War I.
Jean’s story is based on many sources and many women but Jackie’s writing creates a vivid instantly relatable person whom we admire for her strength, talent and courage under fire. We only know about this work because the Irish Postal Workers’ Union remained proud of its female members and kept the records unlike the British who deliberately destroyed them as Jackie explains in her Author’s Note. By the way Jackie’s notes are  a mine of information and always worth reading.
This is a great story that will appeal to many as it brings history alive in all its gritty detail. It is one that should be in every school library and put into the hands of any child interested in the past.
HarperCollins AU 2023 
Jackie French
1942 Amsterdam Ave NY (212) 862-3680

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