I became very engrossed reading this story, as I have visited a number of lighthouses all around New Zealand over many years – some were still manned when we visited, and others were automated. It’s a very well written and entertaining story. Author Philippa Werry is a librarian and a children’s author. She has written non-fiction, poetry, stories and plays, and a number of pieces for the School Journal.
This story is set in 1941-42 when the reality of war was hitting New Zealand hard with rationing and of course sightings of submarines along our coastline. Darwin and Pearl Harbour had been bombed. Along New Zealand’s coastline from Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island and Dog Island at the bottom of the South Island, were over 30 manned lighthouses. These lighthouses were manned by men with their wives and families along with single men that during this time were doing coast watches – keeping an eye out for enemy submarines and warships.
This is a story of one particular family through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl called Frances Sutherland. We see life through her diary from the period December 1941 until September 1942. She has an older sister Laura that comes home from boarding school in the holidays and three younger brothers, one of whom, Stephen, is deaf. They have various pets, chickens for eggs, pigs for meat and a cow for fresh milk.
There are two other families – the Parkers with one son on the mainland, one daughter the same age as Frances and two younger brothers and one sister, and the Wallaces. The Wallaces are a couple with one son serving in the military. The coast watchers are Bill and Walter. The Parkers get another posting and so Mr and Mrs McKenzie come to replace them. They have one son on the mainland and three other sons that arrive with them, and they move into what was the Parker’s cottage.
The Lighthouse keepers are a tightly knit group. With new postings every few years, many get to know each other well. Life is tough as supplies are bought every few months by a supply boat, along with mail and newspapers. When the boat comes, it is always a big occasion, often with Laura the older sister coming or going to boarding school, or other people like the Heath Nurse arriving to check on the health and welfare of the families. France’s mother is pregnant and so as her confinement approaches, she needs to go to the mainland to stay with family and to be near a hospital. This means as the older sister left behind on the island along with her brothers, Frances has to take over all the household chores.
I really enjoyed this book and could imagine either my 12-year-old or 10-year-old granddaughters reading it and enjoying as much as I did. Life was very hard in these times with no electricity, and cooking done on a coal range. The lighthouses were lit by hand – they had to light the mantels. Regular reports are done by the keepers using a special code – probably a type of Morse code. For the women of the families, it was hard physical work. All washing had to be done in a copper and if they had bad weather for any length of time clothing etc would be draped around inside the cottages.
Life for lighthouse families was very isolated, with the children making their own fun. For children of today’s world, reading a story of life during wartime would seem very different.
I would recommend this book for 10 years upwards.
Reviewed by Christine Frayling
My New Zealand Story: Lighthouse Family, Coastal New Zealand 1941-42
by Philippa Werry
Published by Scholastic NZ