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by Sue Hubbard

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1851,151,220 (4.1)None
A moving tale of unlikely friendship and the beauty of nature, set in the wild wetland landscape of the English Fens during World War II Perfect for fans of Atonement, this gorgeous coming of age explores the connection between Philip, a conscientious objector, and Freda, a young London evacuee housed by a cruel familyFreda is a twelve-year-old… (more)

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“As I’ve got older, I’ve come to realize that memory isn’t a question of simply recalling the things that happened day after day, year after year, but a patchwork of events etched across our hearts.”

Eighty-seven-year-old retired librarian Freda, now a resident of a senior living facility, spends her days taking walks in her neighborhood, reminiscing about the years gone by, and documenting her memories. As the seventy–fifth anniversary celebration of the Dunkirk evacuation approaches, she finds herself flooded by her own memories of that period and she reflects on how her experiences have impacted her throughout her life.

In 1939, twelve-year-old Freda, along with several other children was sent to Lincolnshire from her London home in Bethnal Green as a part of Operation Pied Piper- an effort to keep children safe from German aerial bombings. Billeted with the Willocks, who treat her like free labor, barely providing for her basic needs despite collecting the allowance paid to them for sheltering her, she is lonely and misses her mother and Nan. One day while exploring the marshlands, she finds an injured goose and approaches reclusive painter Philip Rhayader, who lives in an abandoned lighthouse on the marshlands. Philip is a sensitive human being, a conscientious objector who left Oxford after having a nervous breakdown and now works for a local farmer. When not working he spends his time amid nature, with his painting and providing a sanctuary to the birds who take shelter with him during the winters. Philip nursed the goose back to health and the christen it “Fritha”, a name that means “protector of peace” – as Philip points out is a “good name for a goose during wartime”. Her friendship with Philip who shares his love for books and nature with Freda is the only happy memory Freda has of her time as an evacuee. But as WWII rages on, will their sanctuary be able to shelter them from the world outside?

“Life soon becomes reduced to a pile of ephemera. Why do I keep these things? These bits and bobs, meaningless to anyone other than me. Because they take me straight back, provide tangible evidence of what really happened. Proof that everything isn’t just a figment of my overblown imagination.”

Flatlands by Sue Hubbard is a beautifully-written novel. I was captivated by its vivid imagery and poetic prose. The author mentions that her story is inspired, in part by Paul Gallico’s novella “The Snow Goose”. While the author stays true to the central theme of The Snow Goose, also naming her characters Freda and Philip, (Frith and Philip in Gallico’s novella) Hubbard’s characters are developed with much depth. In doing so the author gives us a broader perspective of life during that period. The author does a commendable job of exploring life in wartime England both from the perspectives of a child separated from her family and a recluse who is a conscientious objector.

Freda and Philip come from different walks of life. Philip is in his twenties and Freda is a child of twelve/thirteen. Philip’s family is affluent while Freda belongs to a family of shopkeepers. Their backgrounds, perspectives on war and life in general and struggles are distinctly different yet, their friendship is beautiful and serves as a source of comfort for both of them. Philip’s concern for Freda is the only kindness she experiences. Philip’s storyline covers his life from his early childhood and details the events that led to his reclusive life in the Fens, his conflicted feeling about war and violence, his stance as a pacifist and conscientious objector and how the events of WWII impact the same. The author also addresses sensitive issues such as mental health, sexual identity and societal expectations during those times. The plight of evacuee children such as Freda sent away from their homes to live with strangers and the uncertainty associated with the same is at times difficult to read. The neglect and eventual abuse Freda suffers are heartbreaking and the author is unflinching as she explores the darker side of human nature as represented by the Willocks. One can sympathize with their economic hardships but that cannot justify their treatment of Freda.

Though the author skillfully weaves Freda’s and Philip’s storylines into an engaging narrative, I found the transitions between the timelines and between the characters' individual stories to be a tad abrupt, which took a while to get used to. I also would have liked more scenes between Philip and Freda.

I should mention that this is a slow-paced and descriptive novel (the first half moves very slowly, in fact) that needs to be read with time and patience. However, the historical context, the characterizations, the imagery, and the elegant prose make for a thought-provoking and poignant read.

This is my first Sue Hubbard novel and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.
I received a digital review copy from the author and publisher via Edelweiss . All opinions expressed in this review are my own.

“Stories are created from silence and absence, though the space between words can be so wide you feel you might drown.” ( )
  srms.reads | Sep 4, 2023 |
Rating: 3.5

Based on Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, which I’ve never read, Hubbard’s wartime novel focusses on the friendship between Freda, a twelve-year-old girl evacuee from East London and Philip, a young man in his early twenties, a former Oxford student who’s recently spent time in an asylum after a nervous breakdown. While training for the priesthood, he had a crisis of faith. A sexual relationship with a male friend only amplified his shame and psychological turmoil. Registered as a conscientious objector, he has come to the remote fenlands to labour in the fields, but also to paint and to heal through close communion with the natural world. He is increasingly troubled by the safety he’s chosen when it becomes clear to him that stopping Hitler is a moral imperative.

Freda, the child evacuee has been assigned to a terrible, brutish family. The Willocks are themselves outcasts of sorts, living a hardscrabble existence in a squalid cottage on the periphery of the small fenlands community. Freda is neglected and taken advantage of in every way. Her beloved nan dies early in the war, her father’s run off with a bar maid, and her mother shows little concern for her daughter’s welfare, apparently preoccupied with trying to run a hardware shop in Bethnal Green.

In this sensitive but very slow-moving and unrelentingly sombre story, Freda’s and Philip’s paths cross. This event is frankly a long time coming, occurring at about the halfway point of an almost 300-page novel. The pair bond over an injured pink-footed goose. For a time, Freda has a refuge of sorts at the lighthouse where Philip lives and paints. The author’s main purpose is twofold: to explore how the relationship between the two lonely, isolated people changes the life of the younger and to show how the elder, Philip, finally gains a sense of meaning. (I have to say, however, that I did not find the action he ultimately took to be plausible. I don’t think sailing skills one learned at age twelve (which have gone unpractised for a decade or more) could be applied with the readiness Philip demonstrates. I’m doubtful, too, about the philosophical conclusions he’s able to reach while in the midst of chaos and crisis at Dunkirk.)

While there is certainly beauty in this novel, I felt the book was longer than it needed to be. The sections focussing on Philip seemed unnecessarily repetitive. The ruminations of a deeply introverted, psychologically injured person do not make for riveting reading. In addition, the author evidently did a lot of research and appears to have not wanted it to go to waste. Too many names of prominent artists and intellectual figures of the time and too many details from BBC Home Service war reports also contributed to the tedium. With these things in mind, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend Flatlands. ( )
  fountainoverflows | Jul 19, 2023 |
Freda is evacuated to the area around The Wash in Lincolnshire. She is lonely and abused in her host family. Phillip is a sensitive young man who is a conscientious objector living in an abandoned lighthouse. The two find each other when caring for an injured goose and together make decisions about their future.
This story is loosely based on the Gallico story 'The Snow Goose' and the life of Peter Scott but is wholely fictional. It is a very emotive tale which handles big issues with sensitivity. However the love for the landscape is written in every word and really focuses the story. ( )
  pluckedhighbrow | Jul 15, 2023 |
Telling her story in a journal, Freda evacuates from London in anticipation of German bombing. She comes from a humble family with weak bonds to each other. Her grandmother Nan is the only person she feels close to, but she soon dies after Freda’s departure. Her mother and father have recently divorced as her father has left for another woman. As a mere twelve-year-old, she is alone in the world.

After a railroad trip, she is taken up in the flatlands of Britain by a family paid by the government to shelter her. She soon learns that this family seems only to care about the stipend and not for her well-being. Uncared for, she remains alone in the world.

A parallel story unfolds about Philip, a twenty-something and recent student of Oxford. A conscientious objector, he is not involved in the war effort and seems more interested in the arts than in the craft of war. He, too, has a history and a past, filled with complicated relationships that leave him alone.

Philip and Freda meet, and for a short time, they are not alone. He teaches her and inspires her to become who she really is, despite whatever poor background she was offered or hardships she will encounter. He becomes the center of her life as a mentor. Then life happens again, and decades upon decades later, she remembers him with detail in her journal.

This story is appropriate for adults who must find the courage to confront the hardships of their day. It reminds me that singular acts of love can do more to influence life than all the horrors of hate can do to oppress it. Doing the right thing may not have an obvious payoff, but human faith maintains that it will eventually pay off. Most will not hold a perfect hand in life’s poker game, but serendipitous happenings can propel us forward into our futures if we’re willing to give each other a chance. ( )
  scottjpearson | May 24, 2023 |
It had all been so short and what had it been for? What difference had he made?
from Flatlands by Sue Hubbard

What do we leave behind after we are gone? Are we like the ripple when we throw a stone into still water–a quick disturbance that flashes into nothingness?

Say you are a young man with strong ideals, someone who never fit in. And you discover peace and serenity living close to nature. Say you befriend a girl who is separated from her mother, unprotected and mistreated. Say you show her things she never knew–poetry and art and how to care for the wounded. Say you do one courageous thing, and it brings death. Was your life without meaning?

We all stand on the brink, he thought, with our toes hanging off the edge of the world.
from Flatlands by Sue Hubbard

At eighty-seven years old, Freda marvels at how old age crept up on her. “Wrinkles have a way of making you disappear one line at a time,” she thinks, but she is the same, her heart is the same. To make sense of her life, she sorts through the ephemera that are “tangible evidence of what really happened.” As a girl, Freda was evacuated from London during WWII. She was small and plain and unclaimed until taken by a poor family, a family that worked hard just to survive, a family without the luxury of love.

Freda worked at the worst jobs, endured cold and hunger, and finally abuse. Then, she met Phillip. He lived at the abandoned lighthouse, spent his days in manual labor and his evenings making art and reading, listening to his gramophone records. Philip showed Freda concern and care, and taught her about the world, art and poetry. He had been at university, talked theology with the Inklings, loved two beautiful people, a brother and a sister. But he had no faith, was a broken man, and hated the violence of war. A conscientious objector, here along the flat lands of the fens, working on the land with his hands, he had discovered peace.

The writing is stunning, twisting my heart so many times in its words. The marshlands beautifully described, the character’s inner lives flayed open with great sensitivity. The novel asks the great questions of life, and it affirms the healing power of nature and art–and love.

I was surprised to read that the novel is a retelling of Paul Gallico’s children’s story The Snow Goose; I remember reading it and many other novels by him when I was a teenager, fifty-some years ago. And that Gallico was inspired by a real person and place.

This is a real gem of a novel.

Thanks to the publisher for a free book. ( )
  nancyadair | May 19, 2023 |
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A moving tale of unlikely friendship and the beauty of nature, set in the wild wetland landscape of the English Fens during World War II Perfect for fans of Atonement, this gorgeous coming of age explores the connection between Philip, a conscientious objector, and Freda, a young London evacuee housed by a cruel familyFreda is a twelve-year-old

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