Monday, March 28, 2022

Pepper pots and Kaleidoscopes

The Secret of the Treasure Keepers by A.M. Howell (Usborne, 2022)

There is no law of history any more than of a kaleidoscope.

- John Ruskin

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of A.M. Howell's books, so to be able to celebrate the publication of her fourth book in three years is a joyous thing indeed. With this new novel, The Secret of the Treasure Seekers, we are whisked away to the eerie East Anglian fenland on a hunt for missing treasure. Howell here creates a mystery not only from the 'present' day of 1948 but also explores the allure of archaeology, that study which provides us with endless questions about (as Ruskin might say) that 'lawless' story of the past. 

There are so many delightful details in Treasure Keepers, as well as an exciting plot - as we have come to expect from Howell - twisting and turning until a final denouement that is at once satisfying and not a little unexpected. But the one thing that has really struck me while reading her latest novel is the author's very real sense of place and her ability to transpose both subject and atmosphere between books as though we are looking at different facets of British history through a kind of shifting lens. It is now clear that Howell is building up a body of work that, like a kaleidoscope, views seemingly disparate fragments of our past in endless and similarly 'lawless' patterns.

I marvel at Howell's skill at conjuring up these very different worlds-in-miniature; every time I read one of her books (and I have read Garden five times now!), I am enchanted so effortlessly that I find myself swept into these stories in an almost physical way. We put our eyes to the viewfinder and move from the manor-house grace of The Garden of Lost Secrets to the cultured Cambridge cityscape in The House of One Hundred Clocks, then to the elegant but brooding and oppressive atmosphere of The Mystery of the Night Watchers. But if Garden is all neat lawns and clipped hedges bathed in an autumnal, Edwardian glow, with one smooth turn of the kaleidoscope Howell now paints us a world of - at times - startling harshness in Treasure Seekers. The smell and texture of the earth, freshly churned up, with accompanying cries of hungry rooks and gulls; the increasingly bitter weather and 'razor-thin' air; the musty chill of old barns, haylofts and raid-shelters; all of these things bring to life a very different rural world of post-war Britain. 

Certainly in Treasure Keepers, I looked up on more than one occasion surprised that I was not in actual fact standing ankle-deep in soft, yielding mud, in the middle of a stark fenland field, holding a newly unearthed fragment of ancient history and wondering - wondering - about how it came to be there, buried under my feet, all the time. That sort of writing - the rare sort that has the overwhelming power to transport us from now to then and back again - is what helps young (and old!) readers to begin to make sense of those shattered stories of history. Like those bright kaleidoscopic shards of coloured glass, it will dazzle and delight in equal measure and make literary (and perhaps, even, real-life) archaeologists of us all. 


A Little Reading Companion

While you are reading 'The Secret of the Treasure Seekers' yourself and especially with children, you might like to connect with the book on a personal level by thinking about these prompts. In thinking about the following questions, one for each chapter, I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. 

1. If you were in Ruth's position, would you have answered The Telephone Call? Why / why not?

2. Perhaps Mr Knight didn't always want to be the curator of the museum. Do you think he might be good at any of these jobs: policeman, teacher, car mechanic, shop salesman...? (Or not!)

3. If you could, what would you paint as a big Mural on the wall of your bedroom? Why?

4. Ruth says to her mother: 'During the war you used to say it was important to do what was right'. For what reasons do Ruth and her mother think that The Plan is the right thing to do? Why might some people think it isn't the right thing to do?

5. Listen to an extract from (or all of!) Vaughan Williams' In the Fen Country and look at some photos of the East Anglian Fens. (This panorama - with sound effects - is a great start:  Make a list of words to describe what you feel and sense while doing this. Use these words to help you imagine and describe what it might be like living at Rook Farm.

6. Joe has already made Ruth and her mum feel Not Welcome but also take a look at the description of the house. How many words and descriptions can you find that make even the house itself feel unwelcoming?

7. How would you feel and what would you do next if you were Ruth and had heard the Whispers between Joe and Mary at the end of the previous chapter? 

8. The Piperatorium is beautifully made to hold something very valuable to the Romans. Design a container for something that is important to you

9. The initial exploration of the field must have been a thrilling experience for Ruth and her mum! We learn about how they set up the area before their Excavation. Find out how to do this yourself and make your own dig for treasure! This resource pack looks very helpful! 

10. Joe tells a Secret to his dad at the end of this chapter. What reasons can you think of for why he tells this person in particular, when actually they aren't there at all? 

11. How does the Knock at the Door and the visitor show us a different side to the characters we know so far? Look carefully at how each of them (including Dash) behave at this point in the story.

12. Joe has hidden the Final Warning from the bank, along with other letters demanding repayment. Do you feel you could trust him? Is he a good or bad person?

13. Although there has been More to Learn about what is going on at Rook Farm in this chapter, take a moment to share any questions about the book you have that are as yet unanswered. 

14. The Eel Man fishes for eels. What do these creatures look like? Find out more about them. What is the most amazing fact you discover?

15. The situation might go from Bad to Worse here but there are still some good things mentioned in the chapter too. Can you find them? 

16. Apart from thinking about the barn, what other thoughts must Ruth have going through her head as she sees her mother driving Back to London

17. Make your own collection of Old Things. You could make it look a bit like a museum by collecting them together and writing little cards to label each one. Remember, in the future, a collection like yours might be seen in a museum - we are living history after all!

18. The Eel Man is discovered again, this time hanging about in the Thicket - but how do you feel about him? How does the story make you feel these things?

19. How exactly Mr Hartest has mysteriously disappeared is not explained or even hinted at in the story so far. Make a list of some possible things that might have happened to him - there is at least one given in the book. 

20. Emma gives Audrey's charm bracelet a name to carry. Look at the drawing of the bracelet at the start of the chapter. What do all the pieces tell you about Audrey perhaps? And why does she have her sister's name hanging there? 

21. Apart from being Watched in this chapter, Ruth experiences a number of other scary things. Which is the most frightening thing to happen, in your opinion. 

22. Have you ever looked after something carefully, then found it Gone? Tell us about what happened. 

23. My Fault? Whose fault?? And have they really made a mistake in your opinion?

24. What is a Telegram? Find a photo or picture of one. Why do we not have telegrams today?

25. Would you like to live in The Hut described in this chapter? Why or why not? 

26. How many British Birds can you name? What makes each of the birds you know particularly special? 

27. Why did A.M. Howell decide to make the Bus break down in this chapter? How does it affect the story?

28. When Belvoir Street was bombed, big gaps appeared where houses used to be. Take a look along a street you know well. What would it be like if some of the familiar buildings weren't there? 

29. Sally tells her story of being in an Anderson shelter during a raid. Find out what these shelters look(ed) like and, if you can, any real-life stories of what it was like to use one in the war.

30. Although they aren't as fancy as his original department store, why do you think many local people would think Mr Bond's Buses are better than the original shop?

31. Ruth's Suspicion falls on another character in this chapter. Make a list of all who are main suspects for the robbery. Discuss why you think each character may have committed the crime. 

32. Inside The Van, Ruth discovers something she was not expecting to find. Think back across the whole book: where else has Ruth been surprised by what she has found while searching for clues? There are quite a lot of times!

33. Use the map at the front of the book to trace the route Ruth and Joe make on their treasure hunt. Can you find all the places mentioned? And ultimately the place where Joe says 'This is the spot'? 

34. As the story builds to a climax, what effect does the Blizzard (and the other unusual quirks of weather that are described) have on the story here? 

35. What firm Proof do you think Ruth and Joe needed or would have hoped to find before they made their accusation? 

36. Think of all the characters standing in the room when Ruth and Joe make their Accusations. Say one thing that might go through each character's mind when they hear what the two children say. 

37. Make a list of all the things in the book that make sense, now that we know The Truth.

38. Ruth says that she is a 'rotten detective' as part of the Apologies given in this chapter. Do you agree she could have been a better detective? Or do you think she is wrong and she actually did well finding out what was going on at Rook Farm? 

40. Think about the adventure that Ruth and Joe have had at Rook Farm. What Change has happened to Ruth as a result of it? Which part of the whole experience will have made the greatest impact on her, do you think? 

41. Ruth is hopeful at the end of the book. Imagine we get to see the characters again, another Six Months Later. Do you think life will have continued to change for the better - as Ruth hopes - for them all? 


The Secret of the Treasure Seekers is published by Usborne on 31st March 2022. With many thanks to Fritha Lindqvist for her continued support in providing material to use as part of this blog. 

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