The Whitby Child | Chapter 2


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.


6 thoughts on “The Whitby Child | Chapter 2

  1. Nelda’s predicament (especially in the context of her awful ‘bargain’ at the end of the second book) is surprisingly handled well for, of all things, a fantasy book. Most of the time when fantasy – and I mean fantasy in general, let alone YA fantasy – attempts such topics, the results are…bad. Tone-deaf allegories are the norm in most genre fiction, which is actually avoided here. The aufwaders may not be human, but the plight is all too real, and the humans haven’t fared much better either.

    Jen’s psychological plight is one thing that will be covered later, but for me I thought the presentation of Boston as crippled (especially in the first chapter) to be kinda upsetting (…in a good way? Its mostly for personal reasons but anyway), especially on such a character the readers had grown to like. Again, I can’t think of much YA/MG media that deals with such topics, even in a fantasy context

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excuse me for the inevitably long comment – I swear I’ll never make one as long and critical as this again! Just to clarify, I don’t hate this book AT ALL, I just have a complicated relationship w/ it, and wanted to share why.

    When I first read this series, it wasn’t that long ago. Maybe in 2015? So I was older than its target audience by far, and quickly noted that some of the language is very dated (“invalid”? really!) But I put that to one side. Still, sometimes it all felt a little too… judge-y? Like when Nelda refuses to end her pregnancy, she actually screams that to do so would be evil.

    I can’t remember whether this belief is challenged later on. And to a degree, I can forgive it if its not, because I’ve come to realise that Robin Jarvis writes in a fashion seldom seen these days. His narration is heavily influenced by his characters’ emotions/morals/perceptions, and as such leaves very little room for these things to be challenged. This can make for uncomfortable reading at times. Because of this, I think if you’re a survivor of abuse, it may be better for you to give these books a miss. Jennet and Nelda, though gorgeous characters and well-depicted, fall into self-blame a lot. Which is understandable, because they’re victims, and lonely children on top of that. It is good that these characters exist. But if you yourself struggle with self-blame, I can totally see why it would hurt you to read this. It did me, back in 2015.

    During this reread, I’m focusing a lot more on Jennet’s character. Like I said, I was in a bad place last time, but now I can understand and empathize with Jennet a little better. I see her as I see myself back when I was struggling – and on the days when I still struggle. Her misdirected anger towards Ben in chapter one absolutely comes from the fear that she is a bad person, and that her parents – even though they’re dead, and even though they no doubt adore her all the more – no longer care about her due to Nathaniel’s manipulation of her. I could write a-whole-nother book on everything Jennet does and says in this one chapter, but I’ll cut this comment short because I think I’m babbling.

    To keep things simple: Jennet is alone. Jennet was, and is, vulnerable. And that is the saddest part of this whole trilogy, for me. Because it happens so much in real life. Somewhere out there, there is a thirteen year old girl who is unbearably alone, blaming herself for things out of her control. I hope she finds comfort.

    Again, this book means a lot to me. But it hits close to home. And it’s by no means an easy read.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yeah the latter two books – *especially* Whitby Child – definitely have the sort of content that can strike way too close to home, and if someone was quickly turned off them for these themes, especially at that age, I wouldn’t blame them (I mean, as a kid there was a fair bit of media that I flat-out hated simply because it touched on stuff too close, esp if it did it in a sappy way.

      And speaking of language, some of the language in one or two of the Whitby and Deptford books is…a tad clumsy and of-the-time. Like ‘invalid’ and ‘simpleton’ were common parlance but at the time but oddly I still think of Ms Banbury-Scott from the first and how it just constantly described how fat she was

      Liked by 2 people

      • It’s tricky to navigate these topics, and I think while Jarvis does a good job in some respects, in others it is Very Lacking. And as a kid, if you’re blaming yourself for being mistreated, it could reinforce that that’s a healthy way to act. Because even if Jennet and Nelda’s beliefs are challenged later on, I honestly can’t remember, and that should speak for itself. If I can’t remember, it means it wasn’t clear enough. And if it wasn’t clear enough for me as an adult, it ain’t gonna be clear enough for kids.

        And yeah, on the language point, I’m SUPER glad we’ve moved on from such clumsy words! Especially since a lot of them were just used as short-hand for “this character is one you should like/hate” or “this character is the comic relief” etc etc. It makes writing my own stories more challenging, because I try to combat my first ideas for characters (even minor ones) by saying “Hey, why was this the first thing I thought of? Is this a stereotype? How can I make them more interesting? How can I make the reader go, ‘huh, that’s new!’?”

        Liked by 2 people

      • @Emmy Clarke (god this commenting system)

        On the one hand, the fact that the likes of Crozier and Esau and all the other creeps are shown as very clearly bad with no real ‘grey area’ (which, if we’re being too honest, is often how real abuse often goes – I don’t want to say too much on here but there’s ‘good’ memories among the bad, which is what makes family shit the worst) so that is one big thing it has going for it, and Nelda and Jen’s reactions are a way of being unflinching in the depiction of how that affects someone.

        This sort of topic in general is something thats always gonna be a VERY sore point, especially if you’re too young for the subject matter or if its still fresh in your mind, and often it matters what perspective its made from too – is it the author/director/etc actually trying to tackle the topic or even sort their own issues out, or is it some cheap emotional stunt?

        And yeah, def agree about the use of cheap visual/descriptive shorthands

        Liked by 2 people

  3. All of these are excellent and valid points – I’m so pleased to see this book in particular being looked at in detail and discussed, as it definitely contains some of the heaviest subject matter in Robin Jarvis canon. I wrote out an answer to this but it more or less boiled down to ‘I want to be a protective big sister to Jennet and shield her from all life’s woes’, so I’ll leave it at that. I do have a bit to say about Nathaniel, but I’ll hang back until we’re a few more chapters in.


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