The Song of the Skylark

Written by Liz Shakespeare
Review by Margery Hookings

Mary Mitchell is just nine years old when she is offered as a “prize” to men drawing straws to win her services as a parish apprentice, in a practice which in the 19th century had died out everywhere else but Devon. She and her older brother are sent to work on a remote farm for a master with a volatile temper. They find solace at the local chapel, where brother and sister are taught to read. When life on the farm becomes intolerable, they take daring action to change the course of their lives. It brings them face-to-face with the cruel injustice of early Victorian England.

This fascinating story draws on original documents which give an insight into the farming and chapel communities of North Devon. But it’s not a dry telling of historical fact. Liz Shakespeare brings young Mary and her brother, Thomas, alive in this tale of everyday country folk. All the while as I became engrossed in the novel, I couldn’t help but think of parallels with the modern slavery of today, which has recently featured as a storyline on the BBC radio serial The Archers. Times change but, actually, they don’t very much, with history repeating itself all around the world, over and over again.

Despite the harshness of Mary and Thomas’ situation, without giving anything away The Song of The Skylark becomes a tale of hope over adversity, with the reader willing brother and sister to find the happiness they so much deserve. This is a well-researched book by an author who specialises in breathing life into the true stories of the past.