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At the Firefly Gate    by Linda Newbery order for
At the Firefly Gate
by Linda Newbery
Order:  USA  Can
David Fickling Books, 2007 (2004)

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

It begins the first night the Stirling family move from London to a Suffolk village - a puzzling series of events connect Henry with the past. Henry - self-conscious and smaller than his peers - is uncomfortable about the move. He misses his old school. He misses the sounds of the city. In Suffolk Henry can almost feel the trees breathing. Aware of their son's introversion, Henry's parents arrange for him to meet sassy, sulky, snooty Grace a few doors away. But Henry forms an immediate bond with Grace's elderly, frail great aunt Dottie; they feel like they already know each other, especially in the way she says his name - 'Henry'.

His first Suffolk night, Henry sees a shadowy male figure at the orchard gate, waiting - why and who for? When the man looks up, Henry feels he's looking at himself. His dream that same night is hauntingly vivid, so real that 'he could smell the crushed grass and the doughnuts and feel the sun hot on his face'. He's in a queue at a canteen stand, run by a young woman with a Cockney accent, a beauty with a rippling laugh. As Henry approaches, she recites, 'Rock cakes, doughnuts, currant buns, fresh from the oven ... That'll be a tuppence'. As Henry drops the change, they look at each other. Again there's that familiar feeling of knowing. Seeing the man again the next night, Henry runs down the stairs, out of the house to the gate - but no one is there. The grass isn't even ruffled, though Henry smells the aroma of cigarette smoke and 'the sense of being inside someone else's body -in someone else's clothes and shoes - had been so strong that he must surely have dreamed it'.

Henry befriends Simon who takes him to an old airfield and tells its history. And Dottie shares stories of her years working in a factory on Lancaster planes during World War II. The love of her life flew his thirteenth mission - he never returned and Dottie never found out why. An old RAF song which Grace sings, rings familiar in Henry's ears. One midnight hour, Henry hears engines overhead. 'A round disc of moon lit up slivers of cloud. Flying towards the moon, in silhouette, were aircraft in formation', propeller-driven planes. Henry counts twelve Lancaster bombers, 'silver in the moonlight like a flock of geese ... swallowed up in the bank of cloud', followed by absolute silence.

Linda Newbery's At the Firefly Gate is a flawless, gently flowing tale, intertwining two stories set fifty years apart, with the aid of one ghost, visions, and an elderly neighbor's friendship. Newbery's many books include Lost Boy, Sisterland and Set in Stone. Of her childhood she writes, 'there was no such thing as teenage fiction you went straight from children's books to adult books. It wasn't until much later, when I was training to be an English teacher, that I came across teenage fiction, and excellent writers ... Before long I wanted to have a go.' Her wonderful, miracles-do-happen tale brought to my mind Vera Lynn's World War II song that includes the melancholy words, 'We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when'.

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