It’s 1918 and Stella has lost her suffragette mother to the terrible flu pandemic that is sweeping Europe. The Great War is finally coming to a close, and women are going to be able to vote for the first time.
Stella wants to change the world – but she can’t do it all by herself. Just as stars come one by one to brighten the night sky, so history is made person by person, girl by girl, vote by vote.
Sheena Wilkinson’s last release, Street Song, was a contemporary YA tackling issues ranging from the cycle of reality TV to homelessness to grooming. In Star by Star, Sheena completely changes tack as we are brought into Stella’s world, a world that seems both more innocent and tougher than our own modern society.
The story itself seems a small one in the various contexts in which it exists. There’s the imminent ending of the Great War, the deadly Spanish flu and the suffragette campaign, which is only beginning to see success during the course of the narrative. There’s also the question of Ireland’s struggle for independence and the shape that cause may take in a post-Rising Ireland.
It’s a fully-realised world into which Sheena introduces the strong and resilient Stella. Although the story is told from her perspective, we see all the viewpoints of the time, from the PTSD war hero to the ultra-conservative older generation.
There is this strong background to the story which may lend itself to a very exciting, fast-paced narrative, but Sheena Wilkinson shows fantastic skill in slowing the pace down and centring the story around Stella’s life.
It’s here that Star by Star has real heart. Stella brings a lightness to the community around here, a community bereft with sadness, sickness and a feeling of helplessness. Stella brings an energy brimming with the possibility stemming from the optimism of youth as well as the feeling of change brought through the suffragette movement.
The attention to detail is fantastic throughout, with the inclusion of contemporary newspapers of the time, to the changing styles for women and even the slow pace with which those styles make it to the rural areas of Ireland.
The societal differences between now and then are highlighted too, with Stella being scandalised for talking about politics or even worse, being seen talking to a man in a bedroom with no other intent than talking. Stella is the progressive voice of the house she moves into with her aunt and she doesn’t back down easily from a debate, emboldened by the work done by the suffragette movement and by her late mother.
There are strong relationships throughout as well which lend to the heart of the story, mainly that between Stella and Sandy. He’s an officer returned from the war, displaying all the symptoms of someone struggling psychologically to leave the battlefield. Stella and Sandy have an interesting relationship throughout, Stella finding him to be one of the few engaging people around and Sandy fighting with his own demons.
Star by Star is a beautifully-written tale of resilience and hope. It has a real optimistic message, reinforcing the notion that one person can make a difference. It’s also certainly a tale for our own times, with plenty to be gained from following the example of Stella.