I am delighted to be hosting the first stop on the Umbrella Mouse To The Rescue Blog Tour, and I have a wondefrul guest post from Anna Fargher for you.
The Umbrella Mouse books began after I read a series of statistics over the years, revealing how little people remembered about both World Wars. Most memorably, the History Channel discovered that some British adults didn’t know who Hitler was, and a recent poll conducted for Holocaust Memorial Day showed one in 20 Britons believed the Holocaust was a hoax. A further 8% thought it had been exaggerated.
I was alarmed. War is despicable, yet if we don’t heed the lessons of the past, we risk history repeating itself. I was also confused. As a child, I felt well informed about both World Wars. On looking back into my childhood, I realised it was historical fiction, more than my history textbooks, that had piqued my interest the most. Wilfred Owen and Siegfreid Sassoon’s war poetry, Goodnight Mr Tom, The Silver Sword, The Diary of Anne Frank, War Horse, Carrie’s War (to name a few!) all made me time travel into WWI and WWII and encouraged me to learn more, both in and outside of school. I hoped that a new work of historical fiction for children might do the same thing.
I chose to write about WWII for a personal reason. My grandfather, an RAF pilot, was shot down over Brittany in 1944 and was rescued by villagers fighting with the French Resistance. He escaped Nazi-occupied France on a dark, moonless night thanks to a teenage girl who led him over a minefield leaving a trail of white handkerchiefs so he could navigate his way through the gloom unharmed. Shortly afterwards, a number of those brave, ordinary men, women and children were killed for helping him.
I wanted to write my own French Resistance story to remember them. The Resistance’s contribution to the Allied victory was enormous. D-Day, for example, may have never succeeded without their help and their clandestine activities were daring and gripping. I couldn’t think of a better hook to engage young minds.
My research led me to Marie-Madeleine Fourcade – the only woman to head a significant network of the French Resistance during WWII, nicknamed ‘Noah’s Ark’ by the Gestapo because she assigned animal codenames to her spies. Hers was ‘Hedgehog’. On reading her memoir, I immediately wanted to bring her incredible story to life using Noah’s Ark’s animal aliases in a wartime adventure that could compare to Watership Down, or The Animals of Farthing Wood. It seemed all the more fitting because it has been argued that animal characters can provide more emotional distance than humans when introducing difficult themes such as war because the suspension of disbelief makes it less disturbing.
I also believed that having real heroes might entice children further. When I was ten, I was obsessed with Born Free because it was such a compelling true story, and with anthropomorphism decided for my novel, I hunted for more animal heroes from WWII. Further research introduced me to the PDSA Dickin Medal, which has commemorated gallant dogs, cats, pigeons and horses who have fought alongside humans in wars. I suddenly had a wealth of genuine animal war heroes to draw upon, and you’ll meet some of my favourites in The Umbrella Mouse and Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue including our first search and rescue dog, a pigeon who flew 20 miles in 20 minutes to deliver a life-saving message, and parachuting dogs who jumped into D-Day with their human troops and protected them on the ground.
My little mouse heroine Pip, however, is fictional, although her umbrella shop home in London’s iconic James Smith & Sons, and her ancestral home in the only umbrella museum in the world, in Italy, do exist. I chose a mouse protagonist because I wanted something small to confront something huge like war. I think we can all feel as tiny as mice sometimes, especially when we are children and grown-ups are in control of everything, and even as adults we can feel powerless when politicians are in charge of sending us to war. But if my research has taught me anything, it’s this: it doesn’t matter if you are small. Everyone can do something to make a difference. You don’t have to be big to be brave, and in Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue, Pip has never been more courageous and determined in fighting for those she loves and for what she believes in.
Umbrella Mouse To The Rescue by Anna Fargher, published by Macmillan is available to buy online and from your local independent bookshop.
Huge thanks to Anna for such an insightful and inspiring guest post, and to Macmillan for inviting me to take part in the blog tour. Do make sure you check out all of the other stops.