Book review: The Whitestone Stories by John Barrett, illustrated by Christine Clerk

This is the first book so far that we have read that deals with later prehistory for children, apart from the Wolf Brother series which is set in the Mesolithic (middle Stone Age – after the ice and before farming). What is so attractive about this book is that it covers not only the Mesolithic period but also later Neolithic (farming) and Bronze Age, though unfortunately stopping short of the Iron Age.

Barrett’s prose is beautiful. It helps the reader become immersed in these other, very different, times. The first story recounts the coming of humans to Britain and starts by evoking the smells, sights and sounds of the wildwood.

When Summer came to the forest, all the thickets sparkled with red raspberry jewels; and the grasses were spangled with scarlet strawberry drops as bright as the garnets in the mountain rocks.

Plenty of scope for analysing rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and imagery there and for drawing what the phrase conjures up in the mind’s eye. The Whitestone itself is a glacial erratic that has been dropped by a glacier and witnesses the changes all around, the disappearance of the forest, the ploughing of the land and the building of huge monuments.

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Crawling into West Kennet long barrow to meet the ancestors

Although never explicit, you could make links to what is now Avebury, the West Kennet long barrow and Silbury Hill, or similar monuments in Scotland with Barrett exploring how such monuments might have come to be built and what people did there.

The stories do not shy away from some discussion of magic but many read as if they are parables that would have been told around the fire to children in prehistory to ensure that they knew how to behave, for instance to only take what they need from the forest and not everything, to be kind to one another, to be honest and not envious and to be loyal to ones friends.

Because of this tendency for the stories to come across as legends already very old by the time they are told in prehistory, some of the mechanisms of change in society may not reflect modern archaeological thought. The coming of farmers in boat loads and exterminating the hunter-gatherers, for instance, as in Chapter 3, is not now considered to have been the case. The ideas and products of farming may instead have been adopted by the indigenous population of Britain.

The changes in religious beliefs over the millennia are very interesting, from the ancestor worship of the Neolithic to possible worship of the sun and moon in the Early Bronze Age (which coincides with very rich burials of individuals indicating some kind of high status, in the book they are described as kings), to worship of a destructive water goddess in the later Bronze Age that links to the deposition of lots of metalwork in rivers and bogs at that date. It is pure supposition that there was a change from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society in the Bronze Age, though.

Dancing girls of the later Bronze Age - this is as bad as the nudity gets

Dancing girls of the later Bronze Age – this is as bad as the nudity gets

The pencil-drawn illustrations are very rich in content and would repay some attention, particularly looking at the way people’s dress changes over the years, and the different reconstructions of settlements and religious ceremonies. Be warned that there are some topless dancing girls in this book, which may have happened in the later Bronze Age (though the only evidence we have is from Denmark).

Overall this is an excellent book and deserves to be widely used in the classroom as there is otherwise a dearth of good picture books about the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age. This book goes some way to addressing that.

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