When Ellen Carr abandons grey, dreary London to become housekeeper at an experimental school in Austria, she soon knows she has found her calling. She never expected the Hallendorf school to be quite so unusual. Her life back in England with her suffragette mother and liberated aunts certainly couldn’t be called normal, but buried deep in the beautiful Austrian countryside, Ellen discovers an eccentric world occupied by wild children and even wilder teachers and a tortoise on wheels. But it is the handsome, mysterious gardener, Marek, who intrigues her – Marek, who has a dangerous secret. As Hitler’s troops march across Europe, Ellen finds she has promises to keep, even if it means sacrificing her future happiness.
I discovered Eva Ibbotson through her amazing children’s book A Journey to the River Sea written in 1998, when she was 73. I then selected her adult romances, often promoted for Young Adults. The cover pictures for A Song for Summer pitch it as a romance, which it is, but it is so much more than that. As Ellen, an educated young woman from a suffragist household, travels to 1930s Austria, we see this idyllic country knowing that it will soon be plunged into turmoil. Spurning her chance for an academic life, she yearns to visit the country of her unofficial grandmother and to cook and care for a group of needy children in an extremely eccentric school. Never judgemental, she spreads happiness and sorts out problems and this school has many.
The other adult trusted by the children is Czech handyman, Marek, who carries two secrets; one a dangerous mission to help people escape from the Nazis and the other a wonderful talent and fame. But he is a flawed hero, impulsive and easily roused to anger and circumstances are bound to separate him from those he cares for.
There are many amusing characters in this story, such as Tamara, the passionate Russian ballet dancer, who is actually Beryl from England, Hermine a pretentious eurythmics teacher with her baby Andromeda, tucked down the front of her smock and the dire, Kendrick Frobisher, who adores Ellen but is scared of his mother or any involvement in real life. And yet, the awful consequences of the advancing fascists are also addressed within the plot so that we hope Ellen can survive but do not expect a happy ending.
For me this was a perfect read for the present time.
Eva Ibbotson was born to Jewish parents in Vienna in 1925. When she was nine Eva moved to London to join her mother, a successful novelist and playwright, who had fled Vienna in 1933 after her work was banned by the Nazi authorities. Other members of Eva’s family also escaped Vienna and settled in England, and their shared experiences later influenced Eva’s writing, with the themes of home, refugees and immigration running through her books. Eva studied Physiology at Cambridge University and later trained as a teacher. She started to write in her thirties and her first children’s book, The Great Ghost Rescue, was published in 1975 when she was fifty years old. Despite her late literary start, Eva went on to write more than twenty books for children and won the Smarties Prize for her novel Journey to the River Sea in 2001. She also wrote seven books for adults. She died at her home in Newcastle in 2010, aged eighty-five.