Can you hear that? It’s the sound of the rain on the window, the rustle caused by the wind in the trees and the sound of the kettle boiling as you make the 10th cup of the tea today just to keep warm. I am (true to character) stubbornly keeping my heating off, instead I’m burrowing myself under a mound of blankets and layers of clothing to fight off the chill.
The stark contrast between summer and autumn in my neck of the woods is quite harsh. One day you can be spending a sunny day sipping wine in the back garden in a pretty summer dress, and next you’re wondering if the sun has gone on holiday. A few of my lovely friends are away on their holidays this week, posting envious snaps of Turkish Hills in glorious sunshine and beautiful waters in the Canaries.
I however, am spending a week off in Costa Del Hull, or Hull City of Culture 2017 as we Hullensians are proudly telling anyone that’ll listen. I’ll be ploughing through many books that I’ve borrowed and need to return to their rightful owners, curled up with a freshly made latte and lots of yankee candles.
I promised that once the sun went away (we don’t get much of it here, you have to enjoy it whilst it lasts), that I would bring the old laptop out and write about a read I’ve been so excited about, so here it is!
I was very kindly approached a few months ago by writer Belinda Kroll, an Author from Ohio who specialises in Young Adult Novels and historical story telling. She thoughtfully asked if I would like to read her latest book, The Last April and gave me a brief synopsis. Like any book lover I of course quickly answered ‘yes please!’. At the time I was reading the thriller Maestra, and was very eager to pick up something completely different.
The Last April, by Belinda Kroll (2017)
Firstly, I think we have to show some book cover appreciation! Anyone that follows me on Instagram (veryprettylittlethings) will know that I have an absolute obsession with blue book covers. They really stand out to me and draw me in. They’re mysterious, bold and thrilling. However this cover does more than just that, effortlessly drawing in the American colours and the stars of the flag, it really is beautiful.
As the cover suggests, this is an Ohio Civil War Novel. Growing up in England, my history teachers mainly taught us about the things that have happened to my ancestors in the UK; The Vikings, The Saxons, World Wars 1 and 2, but then of course the fundamental Greeks and Egyptians. We didn’t cover American History, which was something that I would have loved to have learnt about as I have always had a fascination with America for as long as I can remember, so the book was always set out to be educational for me as well as (hopefully) a good read.
The story is set in Ohio, 1865. We are at the height of the American Civil war between the Union and the Confederates. We are introduced to punchy and stubborn Gretchen, a 15 year old girl who lives with her Mother and her Aunt (Tante Klegg). The family are of German origin, her father (Papa) is at war with her brother Werner. The family are Unionists, fighting for President Lincoln, for the country to be one nation and to end slavery. This was a war against the North American territories and many in the South.
It is April 14th 1865 and President Lincoln has been successfully assassinated whilst at the Theatre, by Confederate sympathiser John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor. Panic sweeps the nation, with people waiting to hear the often muddled details from newspapers and the community about their loved ones, the state of the country and what may come next.
The novel begins with Gretchen finding a weak young man, a soldier she presumes, lost, unconscious and injured. Against her Aunt’s better judgement, she decides to take him in, setting him up in her brother Werner’s bedroom, caring for him to better health. The man cannot remember his name, where he is from or how he came to be on their land. For now she decides to give him a solid German name, Karl, so that her Mother and Aunt will not become suspicious of his heritage, for if he is in fact a Confederate, they will be punished for housing one. Her Aunt is a very bitter woman and soon her mother finds out about Karl, angry that some man is staying in her son’s bed. The family have not heard from the Father or Son for some time, and do not know whether they are dead or alive.
The death of the President deepens Gretchen’s concerns about who ‘Karl’ may actually be; there is a prison camp nearby, Camp Chase, and the family is fearful that he may have escaped from there. For now they do their utmost to keep him hidden from the rest of society, hiding him in the family barn where possible.
Over time we learn of Alina, Werner’s betrothed and the Pastor’s daughter who often visits, overbearing and who Gretchen finds very difficult to deal with. She reveals Karl’s lodgings in the house to her father. As such it is announced by the family that Gretchen will marry Karl, something that she most objects to.
As time goes on, we encounter many surprises. Faces reappear, family structures are overturned and Gretchen finds herself learning much more about herself and her heritage than she ever knew before the war began. For her, it is not only a time of trying to make sense of the country, but also of herself, her family and her future. Karl finds his memories after hearing a camera. He finally remembers who he is and tells all to Gretchen, who is relieved but who now has big decisions to make of someone her age.
Although the book is defined as written for young adults, as somebody who knew nothing about the civil war, I genuinely appreciated the story telling as an adult. It was not overly difficult or too intricately detailed, gory or miserable, but I understood and learnt the main points of history and the feelings and ideas behind both sides.
The facts are that over 625,000 lives were lost in the war, and the novel could have been a gruesome and depressing read. Instead, it was educational, intriguing, and explained history to me through the eyes of Gretchen. The thoughts and feelings of both sides are exquisitely communicated through the use of dialogue and of newspaper articles, the issues surrounding ‘fake news’ (as often seen today!) were still prevalent all those years ago, with newspaper bias and genuine reporting mistakes, which led to wide struck panic and confusion and something that we can all understand. We are however lucky, in that we can (usually) quickly disseminate the truth, for people living in the days before the digital era, it highlights the fact that this was not possible and you were entirely dependent upon newspapers and word of mouth.
The story was very well written, it has both good times and bad, and I found myself really rooting for Gretchen and Karl, hoping that the situation would turn out positively for both of them. The twists and turns had me tearing through the pages, eager to find out what was going to happen with the family, and with the political situation.
My only critique of this book that I would make is that I was shocked when I found that Gretchen was to be 15 years old, in the first few pages from the description and behaviour, I thought she was around 12, 13. I felt as though she grew up through the pages to her real age, which could have been because of the situations she found herself in, however there was a stark difference in the Gretchen that found Karl and the Gretchen that stood up to her Mother and Aunt to keep him safe in the coming days which did feel like a lack of confidence in who the character was in those first few pages, but that did quickly diminish.
The book also ended far too abruptly for my liking! I turned the next page eagerly to find out what would be happening next, to find that well, that was the end! I’m never too sure if that’s a sign that the book ended before the story really finished, or if that was a story that just had me in it’s grasp!
I wish I had been able to read and learn about this at school. Often we are very ignorant of what has happened historically in other countries (and sometimes our own!) and I think that history through story telling is a fascinating way to learn.
Can’t put it down rating: 4/5
Overall, I would highly recommend this book, both to adults and young adults a like, for those with an interest in war fiction, of historical fiction or as an educational tool to learn. I would strongly suggest the book to any teachers who may be looking to educate students in an engaging way through story telling. Kroll’s writing is crisp and very easy to understand, and when I begrudgingly had to put the book down, it was very easy to pick it back up again.
Adults may find that the story is lacking in terms of gore, details on deaths etc, however as this is set for a younger audience this is more than understandable and did not in anyway impede my enjoyment of the book.
However, although the story is set in the past, unfortunately uncertain political times are a general constant somewhere in the world. The novella raises themes of hope, fear, and looking toward the future during these times, so will always have relevance.
Where to buy:
Amazon Paperback: £8.21 (Available for free on Kindle Unlimited)
For More Info on the Author and her other novels, Follow:Worderella
WASHED DOWN WITH:
Taylor’s of Harrogate Sour Cherry
Where to buy:
Morrisons: £2.40 (on offer!)
I am so obsessed with this tea! Punchy as Gretchen’s attitude with a slight bitterness of Aunt Klegg, with the sweetness of Karl. Perfect accompaniment to this read!
TASTE RATING: 5/5
Hull’s links with Anti-Slavery:
The greatly influential William Wilberforce was the leader of the anti-slavery movement in the UK, abolishing slave trade in the British Colonies in 1807, with America following suit the same year (although it continued until 1862).
Interestingly, William Wilberforce is from my Home city of Hull. Here is his towering and proud statue in our City Centre:
For More information about Hull and to plan your visit to the UK City of Culture, log on to: