Kate Albus, A Place to Hang the Moon, Holiday House Publishing, York, PA 2021, 320 pages, ISBN 978-0-8234-5246-0 US $12.99
An ideal home is described by a young character in A Place to Hang the Moon as “one of warmth and affection and certainty in the knowledge that someone believes you hung the moon.” Dorothea Dix is believed to have popularized the expression ‘hanging the moon,’ one that portrays a starry-eyed view of another person, particularly of a parent for their child. Kate Albus’ debut children’s novel, a New York Public Library Best Book of 2021, places three orphaned siblings on a search for this kind of unconditional love. The innocent desires of the three young narrators are reflected in the novel’s prose, a former language of books in the style of The Secret Garden or A Little Princess, a story read from and quoted within. The cover illustration by Jane Newland, a cheerily drawn depiction of three children clutching books and posing before a cozy village library, signifies the way stories are intertwined with the characters’ dreams. Set in 1940s London, A Place to Hang the Moon accentuates themes of love and acceptance, of the comfort of stories, of the written word, and of finding joy in uncertain times.
As the novel opens, the death of an austere grandmother leaves three siblings with an inheritance but without the protection of family. Living in London during the difficult early days of WWII, the city has begun rationing resources; across the city, people are evacuating in anticipation of bombing. The family solicitor, with a sly ‘twinkle,’ suggests the premise of Albus’ story—the children are to flee to the English countryside with other children seeking safety—while leading an underlying mission to find a permanent home and adopted family. In interviews, Albus pays homage to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, a parallel tale of children evacuated to escape the bombing in WWII. In contrast to the magical realm of Narnia, the children in A Place to Hang the Moon are grounded in reality, relying on their wits and each other as they are sent to be ‘billeted’ with strangers in the countryside. Albus provides the children the agency to discern would-be parents as they navigate among benevolent but distant adults; grasping, disruptive adults; and caring, flawed adults.
The novel explores conflict in the harsh reality of wartime poverty; Albus doesn’t shy away from placing her characters under pressure and illuminating the plight of children less materially advantaged. Edmund’s perspective is changed early in the novel when he offers his remaining chocolate to a young boy, noting how he “saw the sort of hunger whose endlessness digs a pit in a person”(41). The children are placed in a series of living situations where they are primarily unwanted; with money tight in their billet, the two boys are expected to earn money by ‘ratting,’ ridding the animals from a barn by force with 2x4s. Horrified by the situation, and scolded later for the small pittance they receive, the sensitive brothers rise above the ugliness, banding together to protect and comfort one another.
The novel is geared towards ages nine to twelve, the same age range as its three narrators; like other children’s works, the perspective of the young narrators allows readers to experience the story from a more innocent and egocentric lens. Rotating the point of view among the three siblings so close in age could potentially become confusing, if Albus’ characterizations lacked interiority, or were not as sharply drawn: “Funerals can be tough spots to find enjoyment, but eleven-year-old Edmund Pearce was doing his best. He was intent on iced buns” (1). In the first line of the novel, the character of Edmund—honest but outspoken, often on the wrong end of mischief—finds his voice. Albus’ Edmund resembles his namesake from Narnia; his strong will leads to short-term problems, with the administrators of the evacuee program viewing him as ungrateful and difficult. Anna, the youngest of the three, is the dreamer, and the most bookish; too young to remember being parented or to interpret adult jargon; she leans on her world of school. When the solicitor asks her to “take care…to be circumspect in divulging the particulars of your situation?” she falls upon her lessons, but falls short in her interpretation: “circumspect sounded like circumference, but that made no sense” (28) William, the oldest of the three, presents himself as a protector and defender, yet the reader is given access to his interior state when the pressure of holding his family together causes a crack in the veneer: “Bilious panic rose in William’s throat. ‘I don’t know, Anna!’…There was a shrieking sound inside his skull” (211). The three narrators each possess a unique voice that distinguishes their dialogue; the layering of the three voices adds a greater depth to the story.
Albus employs setting with great effect to reinforce the idea of stories as sources of comfort. Multiple scenes take place in the village library—beyond the availability of new stories and a warm fire in the grate, the children find refuge with the lone adult in the village who relates to their world. Mrs. Müller draws from her extensive knowledge of children’s literature, giving gentle suggestions when asked for advice: “ ‘What did Mr. Tolkien say in The Hobbit the other night? It does not do to leave a live dragon out of our calculations’ ” (262). Reading stories each night allows the children a reprieve from their struggles by day to fit into new homes and families. Anna, going to sleep in a drafty, leaking attic room of her billet, imagines herself saved in the manner of the heroine from The Little Princess: “she conjured a cheery fire in the grate, a table draped in white damask and piled high with warm buns” (198).
While the history and style of the novel feel distant from current children’s stories, strong similarities can be drawn to issues affecting children in our post-pandemic world, and in our country’s battle over the very nature of immigrants who seek to find a new home. Albus draws a parallel when the young evacuees are not universally welcomed: “Edmund and William hoped they were imagining it when they heard one of the twins murmur, ‘Filthy vackies’” (56). Yet, the overall tone of the novel is hopeful. Albus’ language captures moments of joy in the everyday, in a tin of sweets which “filled the children with a warmth that can only come from the magnificent alchemy of butter and sugar” (175), or the gift of a used bicycle: “The icy wind on his face smelled clean and wild, and the gleeful shouts of the audience were nearly drowned by the thrum of his own heart. It felt like flying” (279). The message of love, finding reliable adults, and taking comfort in art, is unchanged.
© Kate Albus and Mary Sophie Filcetti
Kate Albus writes historical fiction for young people. She loves getting to know new characters, both by writing and reading about them. Kate grew up in New York and now lives with her family in rural Maryland. Other than writing, she loves baking, reading, knitting, and other activities that are inherently quiet.
Mary Sopphie Filicetti is a teacher whose fiction has appeared in Montana Mouthful, Every Day Fiction, AEL press’ Locked Room Mysteries, Nightingale and Sparrow, The Magnolia Review, 365 Tomorrows, The Phoenix, Toasted Cheese, and Iron Faerie Press, is a first fiction reader at Little Patuxent Review and an MFA Creative Writing candidate at Spalding University.