Warning: Contains Spoilers!


Aufwader’s Thoughts: Who else thinks Miss Boston was controlling the radio when Sister Frances turned it on? The Sister is blasted with the dulcet tones of what seems to be some sort of metal band, followed by a radio drama which contains, in a few short lines, enough Not Safe For Nuns material to fill a whole season. I’m just saying, Miss B. was rather irate in that scene and had been doing her witchy homework with Prudence’s Book of Shadows. It might’ve been coincidence, but it probably wasn’t.

As for the second half of this chapter, I’m fairly sure it was my first exposure (aside from perhaps a couple of allusions in Jacqueline Wilson’s books) to the difficult subjects of unwanted pregnancy and abortion. In that respect, the confrontation between Nelda and Parry did exactly what it was meant to, and introduced an adult issue to a young reader in a manageable and digestible way.

I can remember the scene being a bit hairy (mostly thanks to Prunella Scales’ absolutely chilling Old Parry voice) but I certainly wasn’t traumatised, nor did I feel that I was ‘too young’ to be hearing that part of the story. As an adult I can recognise that knowing when to frighten one’s readers and when to tread lightly is a mark of great storytelling, and I think this section is an excellent example of the ‘safe exposure through fantasy’ thing that Robin does so well.

Speaking of ‘bitter herbs’, on rereading this chapter recently, I was reminded of the Scottish ballad Tam Lin. In many versions of it there’s a verse which details how Lady Janet (or Margaret) is informed of a plant she might swallow to ‘twine her baby from her’. In all versions, Tam Lin appears and persuades her to ‘leave it alone’, but I thought specifically of the haunting rendition of the ballad sung by Anne Briggs, which contains the line: ‘why d’you pull that bitter little herb, that herb that grows so grey?


Matt’s Thoughts: Love the juggle of tones in the two halves of this chapter. First up, we’ve got the high comedy of Sister Frances coming to visit Miss Boston. Over the last few years, my wife and I discovered the joy of Miranda Hart and while I know she wasn’t on the scene at all when The Whitby Child was written, the mixture of physical comedy and embarrassing social awkwardness instantly reminded me of Miranda’s brand of humour.

Who else would carry a Jolly Cheer-Up Bag with puppets that you might spring on invalid grown-ups?

But then this is in high contrast to the extreme darkness of Old Parry and Nelda’s night journey. I remember some of our commenters had been speculating on why American publishers didn’t go near Book 2 and 3 of this series, and whether it was a content issue. (It may just have been difficulty with sales.)

This chapter is particularly interesting because it deals (in brilliant fashion) with the topic of abortion. I don’t propose to get into a debate on that particular topic, but I think this chapter highlights something of the importance of fiction writers: they can sometimes go places and explore topics that would just cause bitter fights in the realm of non-fiction.

I thought Mr Jarvis’ handling of the topic and the moral choice that Nelda faces was really well done, and opens a discussion on a difficult topic in a way that no amount of rhetoric in newspapers could ever hope to do. It reminds me of another brilliant novel – but definitely not one suitable for children – called The Devil of Nanking (or Tokyo, which was its original name when it was first published) by Mo Hayder, which also dealt with similar territory, but did so in the context of a thriller.

Of course, controversy aside, it’s also Mr Jarvis shutting down an easy way out for poor Nelda. If her options are cut off in Book 2, and she’s committed to die a horrible death, then it’s hard to work out how on earth she’s going to get out of this predicament.