A note from author Hana Tooke
When I first began writing this story, several people told me that five main characters were too many and that I should consider having three or four at most. Initially, I nodded along to this advice, but Lotta, Egbert, Fenna, Sem, and Milou were having none of it. As Sem says in Chapter Nine: ‘We do this together or not at all!’ I realized there was nothing I could – or should – do to separate them. At the heart of this story is their unwavering loyalty for one another and their determination to show the world just how brilliant they each are. I became just as determined to do that too.
When I moved to England from the Netherlands in the 1990s, I never imagined that I too would have to prove myself to people who found it difficult to understand anyone that was different to them. With my foreign name, funny accent and wonky leg I really did stand out. Although a lot of people were really welcoming, there were many who weren’t and (like Fenna) I ended up becoming a selective mute* from the age of 12, right up into adulthood.
What gave me the courage to be myself were the people around me who loved and celebrated me for who I am. This encouraged me to challenge peoples’ expectations of what I was capable of and develop a fierce resolve to reach my goals, no matter how impossible they seemed. Slowly, I found my voice again and I wanted to write a story about children who don’t usually get to be the heroes.
In this story, Lotta, Egbert, Fenna, Sem and Milou live in a time of extreme hardship and prejudice, but also one of emerging new ideas and exciting new technologies. You have people like Gassbeek and Rotman who want to keep things how they have always been, as a means to sustain their own cruel agendas, but you also have people like Edda Finkelstein who see a brighter future, if only people are willing to open their minds to new possibilities.
I love writing historical settings because it’s a wonderful chance to see how much progress we’ve made since then, but also an opportunity for us to think about how much further we have to go to make our society fairer for all. Lotta, Egbert, Fenna, Sem and Milou’s story is about them challenging the prejudices and expectations of the nineteenth century. Here in the twenty-first century, it’s up to us to continue being as brave and bold as they are.
Lotta, Egbert, Fenna, Sem and Milou refuse to believe what Gassbeek says about them and instead they champion each other. As a result, not only do they go on the adventure of a lifetime, but they also carve out their own destiny. It's important to remember there are plenty of people who see that our differences are what makes the world an interesting place; these are the people we should listen to.
So, I leave you with this quote from Edda: ‘I think you’re absurdly magnificent. All of you. The world needs more absurdity like yours.’
*Selective mutism is a severe anxiety disorder where a person is unable to speak in certain social situations.
The children stared up at the merchant in silent horror as the ninth and final dong echoed round them. Milou clasped the pocket watch as her Sense prickled frantically at her scalp and neck.
The merchant’s gold-toothed smile tightened. ‘Aren’t you going to let me in?’
A wave of icy shivers, colder even than the winter air blowing in from outside, ran down Milou’s spine and urged her forward. She nudged Sem aside and glared up at Rotman.
‘No,’ she whispered.
Rotman’s mustachios twitched.
‘No,’ Milou growled. Then, more bitingly: ‘NO!’
She grabbed the edge of the door and swung it closed, but it crunched on something before she could close it fully. On the other side of it, Rotman roared in pain. Milou looked down to see the merchant’s sealskin boot half inside, wedged at the ankle. He pushed at the door, knocking Milou backwards into Sem.
‘You little –’
Hands appeared from behind her, reaching out to force the door back. The five of them pressed forward. Milou kicked at Rotman’s foot until, finally, the sealskin boot was pulled away. The heavy front door closed with a thunderous thunk, rattling the windows and shutters to either side of it.
Sem slid the bolt across and they all took a step back.
Rotman pummelled the door. ‘Open up!’
Milou peered out of the side window at him. He looked nothing short of murderous as he battered his fists against the door. Window shutters opened on the house across the road. Then more followed. Realizing he was being watched, Rotman stopped banging the door and straightened his tailcoat. He shot Milou a furious glare. Adjusting her coffin-basket on her hip, Milou closed the shutter again, looking helplessly at the others.
‘There’s no other way out,’ Sem said. ‘We’re trapped.’
The doorbell ding-donged.
‘The bucket winch!’ Lotta said, spinning on her heels and dragging Milou towards the staircase with her.
They hurried up the steep stairs, baskets creaking, bucket and toolbox clunking, and wheat sack swinging as they ran. Milou grabbed the banister as she and Lotta skidded round the corner and thundered up the next set of stairs. The laundry room was lit by a thin column of moonlight streaming in through a broken slat in the shutters. It was a narrow squeeze past the tubs and tables to the small window.
‘It’ll probably take two at a time,’ Lotta said, opening the window with an ear-splitting screech. The laundry bucket was already suspended on the other side, illuminated by the moonlight and swaying in the icy wind that blasted in at them. ‘Egg and Fenna, you first.’
Egg peered eagerly over the window ledge. He held a hand out to Fenna. ‘Ready?’
The doorbell ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-donged.
Rotman was going to wake the other orphans at this rate. Not that they would be brave enough to go and investigate. They didn’t know the matron was dead.
Fenna climbed up next to Egg, the suspended basket swayed and the rope groaned. They climbed into the bucket together. It was a tight squeeze, especially with a picnic hamper and coal bucket in there, too.
‘Ready?’ Lotta said, then she began turning the crank handle.
Milou watched as the bucket descended with a creeak-clunk-creeak-clunk. She let out a long breath when it touched the ice and Egg and Fenna began to climb out.
Lotta’s arms spun quickly, the winch crank squealing as she wound it back up again. Milou slipped out of the coat they shared, her skin erupting with a million goosebumps.
Sem peered nervously over the edge. ‘But the canal –’
‘It’s frozen, Sem,’ Lotta said impatiently. ‘If it can hold a hundred ice-skating families, it can hold five children. Now shush yourself and get in the bucket.’
Sem climbed in and Milou followed quickly behind, careful to keep her eyes only on the round bucket, ignoring the height and the biting wind that stabbed like an icy dagger at her exposed skin. The basket swayed from side to side and Sem wrapped half of his stolen fur coat round Milou’s shoulders. Lotta passed them their coffin-basket and wheat sack, then piled her toolbox into Milou’s arms.
‘See you in a minute,’ Lotta said.
‘What about you?’ Milou asked, suddenly fearful. ‘You can’t operate the crank and lower yourself down.’
Lotta gave her a wry smile. ‘I’ll need you to unlatch the bucket and then attach the hook, nice and taut, to the railings on the other side of the canal. OK?’
‘But how –’
With a sudden grinding squeal, the bucket began to lower them down towards the canal. Sem’s arms tightened round her so much Milou could barely breathe, but, before she could wriggle enough to get room to tell him off, the bucket hit the ice with a scratchy thud.
They scrambled out, Sem’s limbs tangling with hers, and unhooked the bucket.
‘I hope she has a plan,’ Milou rasped, the cold night air catching in her throat.
They slipped and slid across the width of the frozen canal. Fenna climbed up the stone bank first, pulling Egg over the iron railings. Milou gave her the hook and she clicked it on to the topmost rail.
‘I’ll help you up,’ Sem said.
But Milou shook her head. ‘Lotta –’
Lotta was a dark silhouette in the laundry-room window. Milou watched in awe-filled horror as Lotta reached up towards the taut line of rope, her hands wrapped in something Milou couldn’t quite make out. Then she leapt into the air.
A scream lodged in the back of Milou’s throat, but she swallowed it down. Lotta knew what she was doing. Lotta always knew what she was doing.
Lotta’s coat billowed out around her as she slid down the rope and glided over the canal like some sort of nightmarish wraith. Milou’s swallowed scream resurfaced as a delighted giggle. Lotta was spectacular. She hurtled down towards them at a dizzying speed and, just as her maniacally grinning face came into view, she let go and dropped to the ice. She landed, tangled in a mass of skirts and fur, with an oof.
‘Stupid dresses,’ she huffed as she straightened herself out. ‘So impractical.’
Milou and Sem slid over to her and pulled her up. ‘Are you all right?’ Milou asked.
Nodding happily, Lotta stood on shaky legs, her pigtails in disarray and a wet rag in her left hand. She nodded and threw the rag aside. A few streets away, a whistle blew, then another.
‘Rotman stopped ringing the doorbell,’ she said, her face turning serious. ‘We need to run.’