Five young babies are abandoned to an orphanage in Amsterdam and are at the mercy of the despicably mean Matron Gassbeek, who shows no kindness or warmth to her charges, forces them to slave at menial jobs not fit for children and punishes them severely. Twelve years after their abandonment the five of them are still in the orphanage, having been judged as unadoptable by many prospective parents over the years.
They each have a few meagre possessions which may or may not hold clues to their background and the whereabouts of their families. Milou, the storyteller of the group, has fantastic theories about her own parents, and desperately wants to believe they will return for her one day. She sabotages any chances of adoption, as she wants to be at the orphanage when her parents return for her. Milou’s determination and imaginative plans drive the plot forward and her grief and joy are keenly felt by the reader.
The other four children also have special traits and skills which become invaluable when they go “on the run” after the accidental death of Matron Gassbeek. Fenna can charm any animal and her kindness shines through, even though she is a child of very few words. Lotta is the scientist of the group, with extra fingers on each hand that help the group through some sticky adventures. Sem is a clear-thinking leader whose talent with needle and thread serve the children well. Egg is a talented artist and his knowledge of maps and the country become invaluable in their various quests.
Gassbeek was about to release them into the care of a sinister villain, but they avoid his plans for a life of slavery and take flight through the frozen streets and canals of Amsterdam. Initially the children flee the city following the clues Milou has gathered about her own parentage, ending up at a mysterious mill. They encounter some strange characters who provide further information, and so the story starts to unfold, and the pace of the story quickens.
This is a gothic tale in a gothic setting. Fans of A Series of Unfortunate Events will love the story and the characters. There are nightmarish scenes that will truly stretch imaginations, in the style of Roald Dahl’s villainous adults. The wintry streets and creepy old buildings create a forbidding atmosphere. However along with the bleak landscape, grief and sorrow, there is also joy and hope. Ultimately these characters believe in a brighter future. The stakes are high, and they take great risks, but they do not lose sight of their friendship, loyalty, trust and compassion for each other’s circumstances.
The author, Hana Tooke, grew up in Amsterdam and has lived in England since she was twelve years old (interestingly, the same age as our unadoptable runaways). There will definitely be a sequel, with the potential for a longer series. This book is suitable for readers 8+.