The Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery by Allison Rushby
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Marketed as a middle grade book The Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery (Turnkey) is ambitious to take on the difficult topic of WWII and how to explain the complexity to children. Allison Rushby does this by creating cemetery grave keepers, if you will. Ghosts or spirits that keep everyone in their cemetery safe and at rest. The concept overall was really interesting and it was a fast paced book. I certainly flipped pages quickly. However the plot was complex and it concerns me that it's took much for the average 9-11 year old.
Delving into the plot of Turnkey the reader needs to understand a few things:
1) The Nazis were the 'bad guys' (easy enough)
2) They have levels or ranks of military (not too bad)
3) They are trying to win a war by overtaking London (tolerable) and,
4) They believe that mystical spirit magic can do this.(here's where it gets tough).
Turnkey has to establish two things quickly for the reader. The four points above AND the magical construct that Rushby has created to tell her story from. The construct itself isn't too complicated but how it can or might work is.
Additionally there are a lot of players in this book (seven turnkeys alone before we add in other ghosts and the Nazis) and while the language is very simple and well written for the 9-11 age range I still had a hard time keeping track of who was who.
The thing with magic in stories is you have to set-up rules and parameters. If you want a twist to shock a reader then it needs to make sense inside those parameters that you create. Which means in a short period of time you need to not only tell the story/plot of your book, develop the characters, set the scene AND describe the magic. This gets a little lost in the multitude of characters in Turnkey. I worry that a child would not find this book to be very engaging as they would loose track of who was who very quickly.
As with any WWII book the overall context is dark and foreboding. It was an awful time in human history and there is no easy way to tell any of the multitude of stories that are relevant to the time. There continues to be thousands of books published about WWII because there is so much for us (as a society) to learn and be reminded of from that war. Prejudice (of all kinds), value of life, lose of home or safe space, etc. are all touched upon in Turnkey. If you are not prepared to talk to your child about the horrors and evils that people can do to each other then I would definitely stray from this book. I would also encourage parents to read this book with their child or ensure they talk about it after the child finishes reading it; as there are bound to be concerns that arise.
In fact this is probably a book best suited for kids a little older who are struggling to read. With it's complexity and serious topics it may be written for 9-11 but 12+ are likely to find the story interesting and not too challenging to read.
This isn't the best children's WWII story I've read recently. But it's not the worst. Had I not felt like the magic was used to conveniently result in an outcome our heroine needed, I might have liked it more.
I think a better alternative for children's WWII fiction is The Dollmaker of Krakow by R.M. Romero. With far fewer characters and a less complex plot it was more meaningful to me. That said, if you want something a little more like The Book Thief but for a younger age (ie: Set in London, average person's fear during bombing, etc.) then Turnkey is a solid choice.
For those parents or guardians nervous about giving this book to younger children, it maybe worth a quick read before you hand it over so you know what you're getting the child into. It's a quick and easy read so not much time is needed to ensure you are comfortable with the topics and representation.
Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.
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