The book is a translation of a Welsh language novel published a few years ago. Such is the success of that novel that it is already a staple on the GCSE curriculum in Wales. It is billed as the story of the Welsh war poet Hedd Wyn but it is more than that. Told through the eyes of Anni, a 13 year old girl, living in rural Wales, An Empty Chair shows the devastating impact the First World War had on such communities. Don’t expect action every minute; this is a book that focuses on a few key events and the impact they create.
As mentioned, the story is rooted in history and much of the story is true. Anni was the real-life sister of celebrated poet Hedd Wyn and their childhood home from the book can still be visited. What Haf Llewelyn has skillfully done is weave a powerful narrative between the facts. The characters have a certain realism about them and the plot itself is not overbearing, but invites the reader to consider the implications the war. Being told in the first person and through the eyes of a young teenager strikes home the situation faced by children during the war. This will hammer home to stark realities to modern day readers who may feel disconnected with the past.
I flew through the book, lapping up the story and relating it to my own upbringing in North Wales. I could picture the place sand communities mentioned. It also triggered memories of studying Hedd Wyn’s war poetry for my Welsh Literature GCSE. This gave me a reason to carry on reading. My worry is that others may overlook the book because of the Welshness. After all, Hedd Wyn is, by and large, not known outside of Wales so the story may not strike the same chord.
This would be a crying shame as this is undoubtedly an important book. The majority of books set in the World War are set in the trenches. This on the other hand, never strays from North Wales. It doesn’t focus on the inhumanity that soldiers faced, yet delves into the wide-reaching impact created at home. Families are pushed to the brink, life-long friendships are tested, conscientious objectors are frowned upon leaving their loved ones becoming outsiders. These are the war stories that are often overlooked. When I was studying the First World War with my Year 6 class last year, this is a story that I was crying out for.
The book is one aimed at the young adult market. By very nature of the content and also the narrative style, it is would be a challenging read for many primary aged children to tackle alone. It is a book that deserves a mature reader. One who will muse about the impact of war and the grim history it created. This is why it is perfect for teenagers. However, it is a book that I would use with a Year 6 class.
The book is available from Y Lolfa and the usual book retailers.
Age Recommendation: 11+
Publisher: Y Lolfa
** Thank you to Y Lolfa for providing a copy of this book in return for an honest review **