Hollow Chest by Brita Sandstrom is one of those books that surprised me. I was immediately hooked to this fantasy story, taking place in post-WWII London, about PTSD and how it effects the person who has it and their family.

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The summary, from Amazon:

Debut author Brita Sandstrom arrives with an unforgettable modern folktale of the darkness around and inside us, and the courage it takes to keep hope alive.

Hollow Chest is remarkable on so many levels—its exquisite writing, its startling originality, its deep empathy. An astonishing debut.” —Anne Ursu, award-winning author of The Lost Girl

Charlie has been having nightmares. Eyes watching him in the night, claws on his chest, holding him down. His dreams have been haunted for years, ever since German bombs rained down on London, taking his father’s life, taking his city’s spirit, taking his beloved brother, Theo, off to war in France.

Now Charlie is left to take care of his grandpa Fitz while his mother works, waiting for the day when Theo will come home. And with World War II nearly won, that day is almost here. Grandpa Fitz warns Charlie that soldiers sometimes come back missing a piece of themselves, but Charlie isn’t worried. Whatever Theo has lost, Charlie will help him find it.

When Theo finally does return, though, he is cold and distant. But Charlie refuses to accept that the brother he knew is gone, and soon, he discovers the reason for his brother’s change: war wolves. Terrifying ancient beasts who consume the hearts of those broken by grief.

The wolves have followed soldiers back home from the front. And if Charlie truly wants to save Theo, he’s going to have to find them and get his brother’s heart back. But can a heart that’s been eaten ever be replaced?

Buy Hollow Chest here.

Charlie is so excited for his big brother Theo to come back from war, but of course his brother has changed. Theo returns with PTSD and a disability from an injury that causes him to use a cane. He isn’t the brother Charlie remembers, which breaks Charlie’s heart. Charlie starts seeing wolves around the city and talks to others he knows with PTSD, including Mellie, a local woman experiencing homelessness, and another vet he meets when volunteering at the hospital. Charlie soon realizes that these war wolves ate his brother’s heart, and he sets out to get it back.

The metaphor in this one is very on-the-nose, but in a middle grade novel, I can appreciate that. As someone with mental illness, it really resonated with me. I also loved the descriptions of the companion animals in this one, especially Biscuit and one of the rehabilitated pigeons Mellie has help Charlie named Pudge. I cried a lot while reading this book. I really felt it was an emotional masterpiece that kids who enjoy fantasy and/or historical fiction will enjoy. All in all, it was a 5 star read for me.

Hollow ChestHollow Chest by Brita Sandstrom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ohhh my goodness, what an emotional fantastic read! Such a great metaphor for mental illness/PTSD. I didn’t feel the illustrations added anything other than some possible kid appeal, but the story itself was gorgeously written and so memorable.

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Book Club Questions

  1. Was the metaphor a good representation of what PTSD/mental illness can be like?
  2. Who was your favorite character? Why?
  3. Why do most people pretend the war wolves don’t exist?
  4. What do you think would have happened had Charlie not confronted the war wolves and simply pretended not to see them too?
  5. What do you think happens after the final scene in this novel for Charlie, Theo, and the other characters?

Interested? Buy Hollow Chest.
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