Today is my turn in the Let’s Get Festive! 12 Days of Christmas Tour, and I’ve thought long and hard about what to feature here. I thought about leaning into another folklorist Wintertide like I did with The Clockwork Crow, but then as everyone else on the tour was taking a jolly tone, I thought, lets go with the flow.
Now, for me there’s always something that is special about a Christmas special adaptation of a whodunit, an Agatha Christie or similar that makes a mystery, especially a historical one, tick many festive boxes curled up on the sofa with some chocolates, a hot drink and the glow of the Christmas lights twinkling away.
And so I turned to a favourite read of last year, Gracie Fairshaw and the Trouble at the Tower by Susan Brownrigg.
The first Gracie Fairshaw outing grabbed both my mind & heart with its painstakingly researched historical mystery celebrating a teenage Northern girl with limb difference adapting to life in Blackpool with her much younger brother as her divorced mother takes over a boarding house. The Mysterious Guest is full of mystery and intrigue as Gracie & George’s mother promptly goes missing amidst reports of theft, not only must they uncover the thief but time is running out to save their mother, luckily with the help of new friends, the Emberton siblings, the day is saved in a gorgeously historically thoughtful romp.
When I saw there was a sequel I was delighted as Susan has put as much love and research into this festive set follow up celebrating Christmas in 1930s Blackpool centred around the historic Tower and is a perfect blend of socio-historical observation, thrilling mystery and holiday cheer.
The plot is set in 1935 and depicts situations we now would consider wrong such as wild animal based entertainment- animal menageries, circus acts of lions and trained chimpanzees etc.
Furthermore, the plot concerns prejudice, discrimination and racism against disabilities, English people with non-white heritage and people migrated from other countries, including political refugees and this fits some widely held beliefs about general attitudes of the 1930s.
Whilst Brownrigg makes it abundantly clear these attitudes are wrong, then and now, if these topics are particularly troubling or triggering to a young reader this should be noted, however the acceptance and positivity encouraged within the book should also be taken into account as a example of overcoming.
It’s December 1935 a few months since Gracie & the Fairshaws arrived to mystery and drama in Blackpool and the Majestic is full of guests for the festive season.
Violet through working with the caretaker of the Tower Ballroom has secured Gracie & George a seat watching the dress rehearsal of the Children’s Ballet Christmas performance, but the friends soon discover a saboteur is determined to stop this years performance with increasingly dangerous interventions.
Gracie steels herself to uncover the truth, and in the process makes new friends and acts on her ambitions, to be a journalist, which opens many doors for her to discover what is really behind the troubles at the tower.
Susan’s writing is full of warmth and a gentle kindness which I really love. Gracie isn’t the ‘popular girl’ ambitious go-getter type, nor the hot-headed rebel with or without a cause. Instead Brownrigg leans into making her very much ‘like other girls’, she is someone that many readers may resonate with in some way.
Gracie is quite shy and an intelligent girl with hopes and dreams from a small village suddenly in a big town and who just so happens to also have limb difference. Her small town roots sometimes means she is naive, but her limb difference means she is not small minded. Her limb difference makes her see the world in a different way based on how she has been and is treated, but she doesn’t let her limb difference be the only thing that defines her.
Her disability encourages her to be open to learn and be inclusive of different experiences, even if it’s a bit scary sometimes and affects her self esteem. The way people treat her means she gets anxiety about being in crowds and it impacts upon her deeply who treats her well and who treats her in a patronising, derogatory or noticing way for her limb difference. However, there is far less ‘noticing’ instead with Brownrigg showing how Gracie has adapted to being born with limb difference.
She doubts herself at times but has a good heart and doesn’t tolerate injustice whether it be ableism, sexism, racism or just plain nastiness and it is through this lens that Susan allows us to both peer at the past, and how we in turn see the world around us.
‘Its a poison pen letter.’ said Ruth, grimacing…
‘How Horrid!’ Gracie studied the envelope first. PETROVA was written in letters so straight that she suspected a stencil or ruler had been used to form each one.
YoU Are NoT
lEaVE oR yOU WiLl
‘What a nasty, bitter thing to write’, said Gracie.
— the ballerinas show Gracie the message sent to Natalya Petrova, daughter of the new Director of Ballet, both from Russia.
Susan is also careful to place Gracie within a historically aware setting. Gracie inhabits the spaces, fashions and culture of her time, such as the fact that at 14 she has finished compulsory schooling and has to consider her options whether to work in her mother’s boarding house or step out into the world which may feel strange to children destined for education or apprenticeship until at least 18.
Furthermore, the concept of animal entertainment, in menageries, circuses or chimpanzees dressed for tea parties which was the standard for the time seems almost shocking to us in a world of animal rights and humane causes.
However, the past is not completely a strange and foreign land to us, we know that prejudice towards immigration and asylum exists today, even more so openly encouraged by our government and that far right racist attitudes have been on the rise unchallenged for a good decade, the hateful attitudes are not alien to our society though we know they are wrong.
Susan allows the young reader to view and weigh this hatred and prejudice through the safety of separation in time which will hopefully inform choices made in our present lives, but the distance of 90-odd years makes it less ‘special assembly’ and more empathetic to the reader who may not be aware they are being raised with prejudicial attitudes until they see through the window of others’ experience.
However, it is important to note that at no point does Brownrigg imply these hateful attitudes are ever right or ‘just how people thought at the time’, it is the choice of individuals rather than the ‘mob attitude’. When we consider the historical presence of diversity in Britain, albeit more closer to cities and large towns than small communities, and the uprisings against fascism such as The Battle of Cable Street, and the response to changes under Nazi Germany, many real people in those times were not as prejudiced or racist as what certain people even today may argue ‘was normal back then’, an attitude I disagree with being universal on a socio-historical and personal family history level too, although I am equally sadly aware of its truths in both history and family level and refuse to deny the existence, nor does it ‘make up’ for the attitudes of others, but it is a small strength to hold that being against bigotry, racism, ableism, misogyny and homophobia is not a 21st century invention.
And I love how Susan just perfectly touches upon some of my favourite historical truths such as the diversity of Britain pre-Windrush, this time with Lin, of Chinese heritage AND broad Liverpudlian roots and the settlement of Russians in England after the Revolution and later particularly fleeing the impact of Stalin’s rise to power and accompanying Purges. Our History is richer and far more diverse than the “Great Narrative” that is spoon-fed to us.
Amongst deeper truths and thoughtful pauses, Gracie Fairshaw and the Trouble at the Tower is gorgeously warm and festive in a halcyon way. Simply, its the perfect cosy mystery to read on a December afternoon, and be inspired by the closeness of the past and the enduring traditions of family, friendship, kindness and Christmastime.
“You’re never too old for Christmas’ said Gracie.
Thank you for reading about my choice for the Let’s Get Festive The 12 Days of Christmas Blog Tour. Make sure to check out the other stops!!
Gracie Fairshaw and Trouble at the Tower by Susan Brownrigg is published by UcLan Press.
Thank you for my copy!! 💜