‘Captain Rosalie’ book review: French YA author Timothee de Fombelle turns a simple task into a secret mission in touching novella about a daughter’s love

Set during WWI, the short work by the creator of popular Toby Alone series still manages to deliver an emotional blow

John Millen |

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Captain Rosalie
By Timothée de Fombelle
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 978 1 4063 7710 1

French playwright and YA fiction writer Timothée de Fombelle is already well known for his fantasy series Toby Alone, and his two edge-of-the-seat Vango adventure thrillers. But his new book, Captain Rosalie, couldn’t be more different. The only thing these reads have in common is their unique and imaginative storytelling.

Unlike de Fombelle’s previous works of fiction, Captain Rosalie is a short novella with just 64 pages. The French edition has here been expertly translated by Sam Gordon, and is beautifully illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault.

Five-year-old Rosalie lives with her mother in a small village in Northern France.

Her father is away fighting for the country at the very height of the first world war. Her mother works in a nearby factory building weapons for the war effort.

France is going through a terrible time as news of defeats on the front get back to the village. But life has to go on as best it can.

Each morning, before Rosalie’s mother heads to the factory, she drops her daughter off at the local village school. The teacher says she is too young to be a student there, so Rosalie has to spend the day sitting at the back of the classroom drawing in her notebook instead of taking part in the lessons.

But Rosalie takes the war very seriously and imagines she is a captain in the army. She feels she has to do what she can to bring victory to her homeland.

That’s why Rosalie is on a secret mission that nobody knows about. As she sits at the back of the schoolroom, supposedly doodling, she is secretly teaching herself to read so that she can read the letters that her father sends back home from the front line.

These letters are the only link Rosalie has to her father, who is fast fading from her memory. She’s sure that when she is able to read his letters herself, she will be able to feel closer to him, and his memory will stop fading away.

Learning to read becomes even more crucial when Rosalie discovers a stash of letters from her father hidden in an old box. Words like “blood”, “fear”, “rats”, and “fire” jump out at her. Mother didn’t mention any of these words when she read the letters out aloud to Rosalie. What is going on with her father? Rosalie is determined to find out.

There are many books around, both fiction and non-fiction, that tell stories about children and war. De Fombelle’s simple story about the Great War (1914-1918) and the shadow it casts over the life of a young girl is a powerful read. It will stay with readers long after Rosalie discovers the truth about her father.

Captain Rosalie is a little book that delivers a mighty emotional blow. Highly recommended for readers of all ages.

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

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