Joy Cowley is a New Zealand legend. Children grow up reading her books, from the very first school readers, through to school journals, picture books and on in to novels for children and young adults. She has been writing for many years and that experience truly shows in the depth and quality of her writing. In the last couple of years the wonderful Gecko Press have been publishing Joy Cowley’s novels for older readers. Her first with Gecko Press, Dunger, went on to win the Junior Fiction category at the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2014. Then came the haunting, Speed of Light. Joy Cowley’s latest novel from Gecko Press, The Bakehouse, takes readers back to Wellington during the Second World War.
Viewed from a distance of seventy-plus years, 1943 was history soup, everything mixed up, and it was difficult to separate reality from what he had read or been told. One event, though, was crystal clear and refused to be forgotten. He’d never talked about it to the others, not Meg and certainly not Betty, but he didn’t want to be buried with the truth.
Someone should know what happened that winter day.
Bert wants nothing more than be old enough to fight in the war—to handle weapons, defend his country, and have a life filled with adventure. Little does he know that the secrets and danger of war don’t always stay at the front line, and that one boy’s actions can change everything.
The Bakehouse is Joy Cowley at her best. It’s a brilliant, multi-layered novel about secrets, lies and how the consequences of one boy’s actions ripple throughout his family. Joy Cowley shows readers what life was like in New Zealand in 1943, with the threat of Japanese invasion and many of the men off at war.
We meet Bert as an old man in a nursing home, who recalls the story of the Geronimo Bakehouse for his grandson. There is something that Bert needs to get off his chest, something to do with the Bakehouse, and as the story progresses you wonder what the big secret is that Bert has been keeping for seventy-odd years. It is Bert who first ventures in to the Bakehouse and claims it as the family’s bomb shelter. He cleans and tidies it ready for his family, and one day decides to show his sisters. It is on this day that they discover a soldier hiding in the Bakehouse. The soldier, Donald, has escaped from the army and is hiding in fear of being captured and court marshalled. Bert and his sisters keep Donald as their secret and look after him, bringing him food and clothing. Life gets complicated for the children, but little do they know what is to come and how much their lives will change in one moment. You know that something bad is going to happen but I wasn’t sure how it was going to pan out.
The way that Joy tells the story reminds me of John Boyne’s The Boy in Striped Pyjamas. Like Bruno in that story, Bert is a naive boy who doesn’t quite understand what is going on around him. There are several incidents in the book where, as an adult, you know what is being implied but Bert has no idea. Bert can’t understand why his sister Betty wants to go and visit Donald so much, especially without her brother or sister. When Bert’s Auntie Vi takes him and his sister to the movies, but then ends up meeting her friend and a couple of soldiers, disappearing with them, we know what is implied but Bert is confused. It is very good storytelling.
Gecko Press should be applauded for once again producing a wonderful little package that matches the other Joy Cowley books that they have published.
The Bakehouse is a must-read book from a New Zealand legend.
Recommended for 9+