The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett

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The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett

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Category: Teens
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: The Silver Donkey is a joy to read and a multi-layered book suitable for reading aloud to small children yet with enough depth to repay serious study by teenagers. Beautifully simple yet highly complex, it is highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: October 2006
Publisher: Walker Books Ltd
ISBN: 1844289478

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Every so often, and not as often as you'd like, you read a book that simply knocks you for six. When you're least expecting it, the words come straight at you from leftfield, leaving you both astounded and tremendously grateful. The Silver Donkey is one of those books. I knew Sonya Hartnett was regarded as good, but hadn't got around to reading anything by her. Mea maxima culpa. What a mistake.

In The Silver Donkey, a junior officer deserts the brutal trenches of the First World War. Stress-blinded, he is found in a forest by two little girls. The little girls bring him food and in return, the lieutenant tells them a story each day. Each story is inspired by the soldier's good luck charm, a tiny silver donkey which had belonged to his terminally ill younger brother. The donkey is the central character in each of the soldier's tales - one concerns the donkey bearing Mary to Bethlehem, another tells of the famous stretcher bearer at Gallipoli, John Simpson Kirkpatrick, and his donkey of a hundred names. While the soldier tells his stories, the little girls, their brother and his friend, crippled by polio, formulate a plan to get him home to England and his dying brother.

The story is deceptively simple. All that really happens is that two little girls meet a soldier and find a friend with a boat to take him across the Channel. But it's so much more than that. The Silver Donkey is that Narnian onion of The Last Battle - every layer peeled away leaves a much bigger layer underneath. And indeed, there is a great deal of Narnia in this story. It expounds the most fundamental Christian values of stoicism, turning the other cheek, repentance, forgiveness and redemption. Having said that, I think Hartnett sees these values as universal and not religious. There are a lot of complicated moral situations and this reminded me very much of The Little Prince or even John Steinbeck. But I think the overall feel of the book - earthy yet mystical, honest yet understanding, uncompromising yet gentle - is very reminiscent of the French writer, Colette.

Hartnett doesn't patronise. The Silver Donkey is full of strong and complex imagery, perhaps too dense for even the most confident of young readers to cope with alone. There are some brutal scenes - in one, a terminally ill little boy suffers a panic attack at the thought of his impending death. Even so, for the little ones, this is a story just begging to be read aloud and shared. It is wonderfully and delicately done and I think the more difficult themes will wait quietly in the background for when the child is ready. For the older ones, it will repay a little more with each reading. The Narnian onion will reveal another dimension each time. It's one of those rare books whose value to the reader would not be destroyed but would grow through study.

I loved the lack of condescension. I loved the outward simplicity and the inner complexity. I loved the clever, perfect structure. I loved the way Hartnett doesn't shy away from hard-to-face issues and is not afraid to show good people doing bad things. I loved all the questions that were left for the reader to decide upon: Does John really exist? Is the soldier telling the truth? Did he make it home?

I loved it all.

Grateful thanks to the publisher, Walker, for sending it to me.

Another book which unfolds more with each reading is The Sword in the Stone by T H White.

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Magda said:

I cannot stand Colette, and 'Last Battle' was my least favourite of the Narnias.

But it still looks good, and I might buy it for myself or an older child, as I think Katie would be to small to cope with it for at least another two years, emotionally.

Jill said:

I love Colette!