Summary: Growing up during World War II in Hagersville, Ontario, fourteen year-old Ellen finds herself thrust into a homemaker role as her mother invests herself in volunteer work to aid the war effort. When her younger brother is brought home by a pilot-in-training named Stephen from England, Ellen’s family embraces him as he seems to fill the gap left by Ellen’s older brothers being away at war. Over time, Ellen and Stephen’s friendship develops into something more, and though the end of Stephen’s training brings physical separation as he sent to be a bomber in England, they continue their relationship through letter writing. As Ellen blossoms into a young woman, she learns the hard way that becoming an adult in the midst of war requires sacrifices and facing unimaginable loss.
Number of Pages: 184
Age Range: 13-14
Review: Based partially on historic events as Hagersville, Ontario was a site for pilot training during World War II, Gillian Chan creates two memorable characters in Ellen and Stephen as they deal with the harsh realities war brings. Ellen had my respect right from the start as she is a strong, independent girl with dreams of becoming a teacher. When her mother increases her volunteering to distract herself from worrying about her two sons away at war, Ellen picks up the slack at home, keeping an eye on her younger brother and cooking and cleaning as needed.
Chan develops her character thoughtfully from a girl into a young woman, as Ellen falls in love for the first time and accepts she must defer pursuing her dream of education to help the war effort. Though her father paints her as self-involved, she hardly ever complains, and learns through her experiences that it is safer to keep her feelings to herself.
Ellen and Stephen connect initially with their common interest in books, but when Stephen falls apart after watching a close friend die in a plane crash, Ellen is the one who helps him to face his fears and keep going. I loved their relationship because it was built on respect and they just seemed to understand each other with their common dreams and feelings about the war.
As for Stephen, I appreciated that Chan let him show his fear. A seventeen year-old who joined the war early thinking it would be cool, Stephen comes to realise the reality of war is painful and frightening. Ellen is there to support him, but Stephen is the one who must climb back into the cockpit after the death of his close friend. The fact that he does so despite his fears and recurring nightmares means he truly has courage.
Chan’s style combines narrative and letter writing, moving seamlessly between the two. I loved the letters from Stephen to his family members and friends, but the best ones were those between Stephen and Ellen after he went away to war.
A Foreign Field is a beautiful coming-of-age story I think early teen readers will enjoy.
“It’s really odd here in Canada, seeing the homes all perfect and undamaged. I don’t think people here realize what it’s like for people back in Britain. Here, they think they have it hard because rationing has been introduced. I had to laugh the other day – one of the women at the Hostess House was complaining that no Huntley and Palmer biscuits will be imported from Britain until the war is over!” – Stephen from A Foreign Field by Gillian Chan, pages 21-22
“Stephen sighed. ‘It all sounds so logical, Ellen, when you say it, I just didn’t think it would be bloody like this, that’s all . . . ‘ His voice trailed off. ‘I never thought about anything by flying, how glorious it would be.’ Ellen had to strain to hear him. ‘Planes crash, Ellen, or they get shot down. Men die. There’s no glory in that poem, Ellen, the one we liked about the soldier dying and his spirit living on. It’s a load of bollocks. When you’ve dead, you’re dead. For Lowther it ended in twisted metal and blood on the snow. That’s all there is.’ – Stephen from A Foreign Field by Gillian Chan, page 128