Jan/Feb 2002 Book Reviews

Out of the Ashes

Michael Morpurgo
Picador, Macmillan (August 2001) 116 pages
ISBN: 0 330 397 32 X

reviewed by Ann Skea

Amidst all the present horrors of war it is easy to forget that for some people there are other horrors which have affected their every-day lives and which ultimately affect us all. The outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain is one of them. Like most city dwellers, I had little appreciation of a farmer's life until I sat down to breakfast once with a group of farmers. There was a bad drought in Australia at the time. I had read about it in the papers, and seen the pictures of parched, cracked earth on the T.V. but it seemed to have had no effect on food supplies in Sydney, so it didn't affect me. Listening to these farmers that morning I realized how selfish I was. A wet day for me was a nuisance. For them, it meant that a farm which had been in the family for generations might not have to be sold.

Foot and mouth disease is much the same. Unless you live on the land or near an affected area it is likely to mean little more to you than the increased cost of meat. Which is why Out of the Ashes is so important. For once, you come to know the people involved and to feel what they feel. There are lovely sketches of farm animals, too, which capture their energy and frailty. And although this book is imaginative fiction, as Becky Morley writes in her diary, "This story is not a story at all. It all happened."

Becky is a fairly typical fourteen-year-old. She is a Devon farmer's daughter, unsophisticated by city standards perhaps, but intelligent and articulate. This is her moving account of her own and her family's experiences during the foot and mouth outbreak in Britain in 2001.

Becky begins her diary full of happiness and high spirits. Within weeks this has changed as the threat and then the reality of foot and mouth disease affects her family's farm. And Becky, for a long time, thinks she has been responsible for the bringing the infection onto their land.

Once the presence of the disease on the farm is suspected, Becky cannot go to school or visit her friends, nor can they visit her. She sees the stresses on her parents and watches her father become more and more depressed until, eventually, he is hospitalized. Both he and she have seen their beloved animals slaughtered and burned. And Becky's mother copes as best she can with her own fears and anxieties, holding the family together, isolated on the quarantined farm with the smell of burning constantly in the air. The diary ends on an optimistic note, but in Britain the foot and mouth epidemic is still not over.

Michael Morpurgo, himself a Devon farmer, was also the initiator of the very successful Farms for City Children, a charity which allows 3,000 children every year to experience living and working in the countryside. All the charity's farms are currently closed and this may be the only disturbance to daily life which city children may experience. Through this book, however, both children and adults can empathize with Becky and her family and come to understand something of the ecological disaster which threatens our own food supply, wherever we live. We can also feel that we are helping in some small way, because part of the profit from this book is being distributed to the Supporting Farmers in Crisis Fund.

On the website (www.outoftheashes.co.uk), anyone with stories of their own experiences with this outbreak is invited to share them.


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