A Ravelled Flag by Julia Jones, the second book in the Strong Winds Trilogy, is like the first volume, A Salt-Stained Book, a wonderful mixture of social realism and sailing novel. It's sort of Swallows and Amazons meets Tracy Beaker. I first came across the series on Geranium Cat's children's book blog Hurleyburlybuss and I'm very glad I decided to read it.
Teenager Donnie Walker's family is unusual: he lived with his grandmother and his disabled mother Skye until his grandmother's recent death. Skye is deaf and autistic and Donny communicates with her through sign language. A Ravelled Flag takes up the story after Donny and his mother have been reunited and are trying to persude Social Services that they should live on Strong Winds with his seafaring Great Aunt Ellen. Anna is still living with her half-sister and step-brothers in foster care at the vicarage, and searching more desperately for her mother.
With the characters and relationships well established in book one, we're into the thick of the action right away. This is an exciting book from start to finish. Donny is still fighting to keep his family together, battling a disturbing series of problems and coincidences, and Anna is still looking for her mother. The two plot threads merge closer together very imaginatively and invoke the code breakers of WWII, Chinese triads, Native American culture, internet trails, and puzzles set by deceased uncles.
I love the way that characters are allowed to evolve and appear with different layers. The Rev Wendy, like many well meaning and worn out adults, appears from the teens' point of view as alertnately infuriatingly picky and blinkered, and amazingly moral, steadfast and loyal. She makes me think of Hermione Granger grown-up.
I also love the imaginative range of characters: younger children surprise in becoming more rounded (Luke reminds me of Titty in Swallows and Amazons in this respect for example), Skye is very much differently-abled rather than disabled and is a wonderful three-dimensional portrayal of disability, as Great Aunt Ellen is of the very old. As Ellen says of Skye, she steers by a different star, and this is true of the book as a whole.
Overall this is pacy and original ultra-modern plot with a great relationship with the history of sailing literature. Like its predecessor it references Treasure Island and many works by Arthur Ransome throughout, as well as The Song of Hiawatha by Longfellow. The landscape and seascape is enchanting and the varied and extensive vocabulary used nicely challenging for our age group. The characters are engaging and their relationships are believable. I adored Great Aunt Ellen aka Gold Dragon! It's exciting, unusual and thoroughly entertaining throughout. I loved this volume even more than the last.
There are repeated moments of mysterty and fear and some mild violence. Donny is attacked and knocked out in a cupbaord where, when he comes to, he fears suffocation before being released. By the end of the book it is clear Anna's mother is being held as a slave, obviously potentially frightening as a concept for a sensitive child. Donny is under threat from the awful policeman 'Flint' and from Denise Tune from social services in that they orchestrate a bullying campaign, and there is the constant threat to get him taken away from his family. An abduction attempt is made on Great Aunt Ellen and Donny, and Ellen is knocked out by diesel fumes as Strong Winds is set free - but that is unusual. Great Aunt Ellen gives Donny and the reader confidence that all will eventually be well, an the Ribero family with the doctor father, magistrate mother and enterprising sisters Xanthe and Maggi provide a further reassuring pressence along with the Rev Wendy. I think that this is a very supportive environment in which to encounter, obliquely and sensitively, the tip of the iceberg of some of the horrors of the real world.
Death: Great Aunt Ellen suffers a bereavement of an old friend who turns out to be Anna's uncle and central to the plot.
Relationships: There are no romantic relationships amongst the teens but see note on the nature of the slavery below.
Anything Else: much of the thrust of the book is to do with people trafficking and modern slavery. Adult readers will know this involves prostitution but much of this would pass over more innocent readers' heads as it is handled sensitively. Anna spends a lot of time on the internet looking for her mother and the teenagers discuss internet safety issues like grooming (though not explicity what the grooming is for). Mr Mac gets into trouble for supporting Donny at a case conference and the teenagers discuss the fact that Mr Mac is suspended and being deliberately falsely accused and issues like inappropriate realtionships with a teenage girl are discussed, but again not explicitly. However Anna says after one meeting (where they try to bully her into accusing Mr Mac) that she was surprised they didn't show her a male doll and ask her to 'name the sex parts'.
Donny carries a knife at school - though with no violent intent, it is just his sailor's knife. Anna goes to meet someone she has met on the internet but she tells her friends and has several people with her. The risks are discussed at length and she is trying to find her lost mother, not pursuing a romance. These issues might require talking through.
When they realise Anna's mother is being held as a slave the specifics of this aren't gone into in too much detail; most children from the younger end of our age group would focus on the fact that many of the slaves work as cleaners. The local red light district is described simply as one that would 'disgrace the diocese', though the word hooker is later used.
Skye, Donny's mother, is tricked into drinking vodka and becomes an alcoholic. Donny and his friends have to support Skye as she comes off the drink and prescription tablets. The portrayal of this is carefully and sensitively realistic.
Other reviews and useful sites:
The author's website is here
The third volume of the trilogy is Ghosting Home.