Mari HowardOctober 3, 2021

The Fall of a Sparrow

by Griselda Heppel

A subtle story, weaving in themes of inclusivity, and the validity of not dismissing the value of other people’s cultures…  

‘There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow’ (William Shakespeare, Hamlet)

“ Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? ... Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father's care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matt 10:29-31)

The Fall of a Sparrow is Griselda Heppel’s third story for pre-adolescent children, a useful age to write for, leaving early childhood stories behind, and begin moving towards adolescence and “YA” novels. Children aged 9-11/12, as this book is pitched at, are often voracious readers, and begin to look for something with greater depth not only to stretch their imaginations but to take them forwards in their understanding of the world. Their eyes are opening to the complexities ahead, and Heppel has a great talent for telling stories which present mysteries, strange happenings, and often including a certain isolation or loneliness for the main character.

And so we are caught into the claustrophobic world of boarding school. It is School with a huge S. There is the potential comradeship of friends, there is equally the fear of bullies and enemies, the challenge of learning, and puzzling out new things, and the dominance of adults who are neither your family nor anyone else who has chosen you or finds you and your ideas special, valuable, or interesting…you are required to fit into a group, and do what all the group is asked to do, for most of your day… 

Immediately, there’s a mystery: why does her Great Aunt Margaret look with apparent distaste on Eleanor on her arrival?  What downer that is… and it doesn’t get much better as she meets her dorm mates: Lucy is a bit luke-warm, Lorna is openly hostile, and bossy, (why? Eleanor thinks…). Only Susanna, a bit of an outsider herself, is supportive and friendly to the new room-mate. Lorna can’t stop looking back to when her close friend Nina was in the bed now assigned to Eleanor. Meanwhile, Eleanor is watching the others, and deciding which of her possessions would be correct to lay out on her bedside table, in order to fit in.

More than once, she’s set the majority of the story in a school, a background (even if it’s a historical one) to which children can easily relate, usually with mixed feelings. In the Fall of a Sparrow, our protagonist, Eleanor, has left her previous, probably local state, school, under a cloud, and her parents then send her to a small boarding school out in the countryside, owned and headed by her Great Aunt Margaret. The attraction is that at least at that school there are ponies, and she’ll be able to learn to ride. But once left there, she is of course alone among strangers, and must make her way into the social world of girls different to herself, with whom she’ll eat, sleep, and spend her free time, as well as learn school subjects. 

And so begins the tale, in the old rambling building with dark corridors, mysterious rooms, Great Aunt Margaret’s daughters - second cousins to Eleanor: Mrs Lockwood who is one of the teachers, and sad, artistic Chloe who drifts almost ghost-like in and out of the life of the school. And, there are real ghosts - including a strange ‘horseman’, and, more importantly, a young boy who only Eleanor can hear and see…

No more spoilers - the scene is set, and through the ups, and mainly the downs, of boarding school life, Eleanor must sort the meanings of strange happenings, alongside coping with the dodgy business of ‘fitting in’ among the other girls, whose lives, of course, all contain their own problems, fears, and difficulties. She must also solve the mystery of the strange young boy, and in solving it learn his and his family’s story, and  comprehend some very grown-up sorrows and needs, some of which are now solved. With a light touch, and a page-turning mystery story, Heppel has opened up to the young reader some subtle, difficult, and necessary grown-up themes.