This novel, HOPE AGAINST HOPE, is the third in a trilogy of YA historical novels by Sheena Wilkinson, an award-winning author and writing teacher who lives in County Down, Northern Ireland and who writes with a real sense of place.
NAME UPON NAME, her first historical novel, was set in 1916, during the Easter Rising with STAR UPON STAR, her second book, set during the General Election of 1918, when the women of Ireland could vote for the first time.
HOPE BY HOPE, published this month, is set in Belfast during 1921: the year when the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland was established.
Bright, impulsive, fifteen-year-old Polly is a girl with a love of reading and learning and a habit of speaking out when it might be better to stay quiet.
Despite Polly’s spark, her life is not easy. She lives in fictional Mullankeen, a small rural town close to the new border and in what was a once-happier home.
Since Polly’s mother died in the Spanish flu epidemic, her widowed father has turned in on himself, giving all his attention to running his draper's shop.
Meanwhile, Polly’s brother Leo, who had fought as a now-hated British soldier, disappears into drunken binges and bursts of violence and rage.
Then Polly hears that her cousin Catherine is going to Belfast, to study shorthand and typing at a commercial school and take up lodgings in a girl’s hostel. Polly longs to go too, but her father refuses to consider it, leaving Polly resentful of the limits put on her learning and her life.
Polly stays on in Mullankeen, skivvying for her brother and father until a vicious incident provokes her into action. Polly runs to Belfast, where she feels overwhelmed by the noise and bustle. At last, Catherine arrives with Sandy, a young man who leads the girls through the troubled streets past lamposts adorned with flags and the shouts of turbulent louts. Polly’s impulsive response soon teaches her that Belfast is a more volatile place than rural Mullankeen.
Polly goes to the Helen’s Hope hostel where she in taken in, as long as she can prove her worth. The large house is a bold venture: a hostel set up for young women even when some believe females should live within their family home until they are married. More than that, the hostel has been established as firmly non-sectarian at a time when religious divisions are being exploited and strengthened.
Everyone who lives in the “Helen’s Hope” community helps to keep the hostel running, whether by working in the house, kitchen or garden, or sewing in the factory building, or by teaching or bringing in money from elsewhere. During the day the girls are busy while in the evenings they are free to entertain themselves within the house.
Despite the desperate situation, I rather felt that Polly’s stay at Hope House had some of the charm of an old-fashioned boarding school story – intense friendships, loyalty to the group, a mix of both admirable and awkward characters, a few misunderstandings and secrets, plus lone strangers, dangerous plots, night-time searches and so on, which all gave Polly's time there a welcome pace and interest.
However, at the same time, Sheena Wilkinson weaves in strong and gritty themes, revealing poverty, suspicion and the darker side of a sectarian city where the shipyards drove out Catholic labourers and poor, homeless girls had few choices.
There is anotherstrand in the storytelling that I particularly enjoyed. As Polly - and the reader - experience both clues and confusions within the story, Polly realises that she, herself, sometimes misunderstands situations and people and may need to set her own life straight again.
At a time when Irish history and the Northern Irish Border seems so relevant to the current political situation, HOPE BY HOPE – and all the books in Sheena Wilkinson’s trilogy – must be valuable additions for secondary school libraries across the UK.
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