Flatlands

2023

Fiction

Flatlands is a homage to Paul Gallico’s classic short story The Snow Goose. Freda is a twelve-year-old evacuee from East London, who has been sent away at the start of the war, leaving behind everything familiar to her, to escape the expected German bombing.

In her new temporary home in Lincolnshire, Freda finds herself billeted with a strange, cold and, ultimately, abusive couple, whose lives mirror the barren landscape in which they live a hand to mouth existence, based upon subsistence farming and poaching.

There, deprived of any warmth, she meets a young man – Philip Rhayader -a conscientious objector who has left Oxford and his prospective vocation in the church following a nervous breakdown. Slowly, he introduces her to the wonders of the natural world and its enduring power to heal.

Flatlands is beautifully-written, and highly evocative of the remote Lincolnshire landscape, the Second World War and the two people whose loneliness brings them together for a life-changing time. I have always loved Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, and the way Flatlands riffs on this, Dunkirk and Peter Scott’s work as an ornithologist is an inspired development. It reminded me a little of Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley in its poignant account of a poor young girl’s experiences as an East End evacuee, and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s After Julius. Altogether a fine period novel, full of quiet drama and sorrow at loss, cruelty and mortality’
Amanda Craig

‘Compelling and beautifully intimate, Sue Hubbard’s Flatlands is a classic piece of storytelling.’
Toby Litt

‘Flatlands is a haunting and lyrical  novel about loneliness and the compensations of the natural world, art and unlikely friendships.
Maggie Brookes

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‘The featureless Fens can be difficult to describe. For all the vastness of the skies, the flat fields often appear monotonous: “Apart from the occasional belt of trees and the spike of a distant church spire etched like a thin pencil line against the low sky, everything was drawn in horizontals.” However, Hubbard does an excellent job of conjuring this austere setting, and the consolations that can be found from withdrawing into nature, where the changing of the seasons and the routines of the wildlife offer their own companionship.

But Flatlands does not romanticise rural life. Frida lives with an abusive couple, who take the government’s evacuee payments, yet make little effort to feed or clothe her properly. Meanwhile, Rhayader struggles with his faith, his art, his sexuality and his sense of purpose. However, such hardships are part of the “special kind of loneliness” that is also fundamental to this empty fenland scenery…. The Essex marshes in Gallico’s novella were a vivid if vague presence, Hubbard’s Lincolnshire Fens are imagined in all their bleakness and beauty. In the process, she reveals the depths of feeling that can be found in even the flatest places.’
Flatlands – novel of the week in The Tablet

‘Taking its inspiration from Paul Galico’s novel The Snow Goose, Sue Hubbard’s Flatlands explores the wartime relationship that develops between Frida, a 12-year-old evacuee from the East End of London and Philip Rhayadar, a troubled conscientious objector, who are both exiled to the East Anglian fenlands. Precise in its historical detail and admirable in its evocation of the large skies and isolation of its setting, this is a moving study of an unlikely friendship and the healing power of natural world.’
The best historical fiction books of 2023, The Sunday Times

Reviews
Historical Novel Society
Star Tribune
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The Literate Quilter
Perspective Magazine
Jera’s Jamboree
Boomers Daily

Reviews in French
Le nouveau blog littéraire de Pierre Ahnne

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Sue Hubbard reading from Flatlands, Carnegie Library



Sue Hubbard introduces Flatlands

Sue Hubbard on writing Flatlands

Award-winning poet, novelist and freelance art critic Sue Hubbard introduces Flatlands – a moving tale of friendship and the beauty of nature, set in the wild landscape of the Fens during the Second World War.

In 1933 the ornithologist and wild life artist, Peter Scott, went to live in a deserted lighthouse on the mouth of the River Nene that runs into the Wash. It was in this isolated spot, full of wind and migrating birds, that he created his first bird sanctuary. In 1941, his friend the American journalist and short-story writer, Paul Gallico visited and subsequently published his children’s novella, The Snow Goose, a parable on the regenerative power of friendship, inspired by the lighthouse, which he relocated to Essex.

So how did I come to choose a children’s book, much loved by a post-war generation, as inspiration? Well, I was reading it to my grandchildren and was struck by the potential to create an adult story. I was drawn to the waterlands and wide skies of the Fens and to the characters of a young man and a girl, both outsiders, who create a bond by saving a wounded wild goose.

In Flatlands, I return the story to the remote corner of Lincolnshire where Scott’s lighthouse actually stands, to weave a narrative that examines the lives, emotions, and ethical dilemmas of my characters at the outbreak of the Second World War. In this remote, war-time landscape, with its airfields and bombers taking off for Germany, I take the bare bones of the original story and explore how Freda, a twelve year old East End evacuee, and a young Oxford student, Philip Rhayader, sent down after a crisis brought on by his pacifism and uncertain sexuality, give each other solace before being forced to face the terrible unforeseen consequences of the war that will change them forever.

Told through the eyes of Freda, now in her 80s, on the eve of celebrations to remember Dunkirk that are being celebrated in her old peoples’ home, Flatlands is a novel about memory, love and loss but a love expressed through an unlikely friendship that leads to that, now, rather unfashionable word, redemption.

Before starting the book I wanted to walk the sea wall from the lighthouse around the Wash to Kings Lynn, some 15 miles. It is so wild and lonely – with no mobile phone reception – that I took my son with me. During the whole day, we saw many birds but only three people.

During the writing, chance would have it that I met a painter at a party who turned out to be Peter Scott’s daughter, herself an ornithologist. Together we went to the lighthouse and watched from a bird hide, white swans and geese swimming in the dark. In order to understand how to manoeuvre a small boat down the River Nene and into the Wash and then on southbound towards Ramsgate to get to Dunkirk, I rang the Harbour Master at King’s Lynn, who talked me through it, suggesting a number of nautical maps on which I could plot a chart in order to avoid the sandbanks.

Research for a book like Flatlands takes one to all sorts of places. I had to watch videos on how to catch a wild goose and read about the hard life in the Fens just before and during the Second World War. I read books on farming and poaching and had to understand what it meant to be a conscientious objector and to be a young child evacuated out of the city into a remote part of the country with virtually no support or protection. I discovered the Inklings discussion group at Oxford that consisted of J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and found out, without ever going there, what the inside of the British Embassy in Paris looks like… I write organically, so my books grow bit by bit the deeper I dig into the background and times of my characters, fitting it all together like a jigsaw. The more one finds, the richer the book becomes.

Publication details

UK edition
2023
Pushkin Press
256 pages, hardback
ISBN: 9781911590743

French edition (Un Ciel Si Vaste)
2023
Mercure de France
288 pages
ISBN: 9782715260313

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