World War II is coming to an end. The Blitz, air raid sirens, and bomb shelters are things of the past, but the reality of living with loss in a war-torn city remains. Rationing and deprivation continue. Recovering from the trauma of war and wartime is difficult for everyone, but especially if you’re eleven years old.
Brita Sandstrom’s middle-grade novel centers on Charlie who lives with his mom, grandpa, and cat Biscuits. A World War I veteran, his one-armed Grandpa Fritz prepares Charlie for the return of his wounded older brother, explaining that the war experience steals something from people. If a soldier survives, he comes back missing a piece of himself.
But Charlie is full of hope. He had promised his brother Theo that he would look after the family and he had. His mother gave him permission to leave school for a time to care for Grandpa on his “down” days when she went to work. Charlie takes care of the shopping and manages the ration cards. He prays daily that Theo will come home and that Theo will be fine. And his prayers work. Theo is returning alive from a hospital in France.
Charlie knows he can help his brother. He’s sure of it. Whatever Theo has lost, Charlie will help him find it. More than once, his mother and grandpa remind him to have “realistic expectations.” And Charlie does understand it will take time, but he already started a list of all the things Theo had missed, all the things Charlie wants to show him from the last eighteen months.
Then Theo returns. His heart is both bitter and wounded just like Grandpa Fitz had predicted, “People come back different than they were.” Theo is a stranger to Charlie and the whole family, but Charlie has something new to worry about. He has caught sight of a single war wolf, then a pack of them. Not everyone in London can see these wolves, yet they hound the soldiers who have returned, including his brother.
Hollow Chest is a creative and original historical fiction. Like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, the stark hardness of war and grief is ever present, yet the story is also filled with hope, courage, empathy, and a hint of the fantastical. From Charlie’s relationship with his brave cat to his interactions with his priest and a hospital nurse, he is surrounded by family and friends who help him along, reminding him, “…just because someone changes doesn’t mean something is wrong. It means you love them for who they are, not who you want them to be.”
Hollow Chest by Brita Sandstrom releases on June 8.