This novella was first published in 1969 and tells the story of two 15-year-old runaways, Bill and Julie, during the Second World War. It has enough drama to satisfy any reader of perhaps ten upwards, giving a vivid idea of that far-off time when bombs fell on England.
Seen from the point of view of Bill, a rather curmudgeonly boy from a rough part of London, it begins with the moment when he notices Julie, another schoolchild like himself, plainly lurking in the underground, hoping to escape the notice of the adults seeking refuge there during an air-raid. They soon form an alliance based on mutual need in scenes carried by succinct dialogue that give just enough information for the reader to discover how the two came to be in this predicament. Their innocence about the war and what the Blitz means is touchingly evoked. While they try to make sense of it, they learn how to buy food without a ration book, find somewhere safe to sleep at night, and establish an old-fashioned version of a nuclear family complete with toddler. At the same time their relationship, made tricky by the class-consciousness of the 1940s, develops in a warm and non-sexual way. Paton Walsh is deft in the way she hints at the feelings which, without giving away the plot, have an unexpected ending.
As Bill says when it is over, the fireweed that flowers on London’s bombed sites ‘grows only on the scars of ruin and flame.’ As a sign of his maturing he understands it as a symbol of healing when life and death have done their worst.