This story takes place during World War II in England, when the London air raids began in 1940 and scores of children were being sent away to live in rural parts of Great Britain to escape from the bombings.
The year is 1942, and 11-year-old Robert Schwartz, his sisters 9-year-old Rachel and 14-year-old Laurel, along with their next-door neighbor Jeffrey Walsh (also 11) are sent away to stay with relatives in the town of Dunbar, which was located by the North Sea. Colonel John Schwartz is off fighting and Marie Schwartz went to look after the children’s sick grandmother, who lived in Birmingham.
Uncle Hubert and Aunt Louise and cousin Theodore are strict, but fair. They tell the children to stay away from the crumbling church down the lane and avoid the couple who live there. But that doesn’t stop Robert from being sent by the local grocer to take food to the church. There, in a darkened room, he sees a young boy playing a strange piano.
10-year-old Raven Knight was a piano-playing prodigy; ever since he was 4 years old, he would play the piano for 2 hours every day. He was just beginning to be showcased by his parents at the church when a cruel couple named Frank and Lillian Wildon show up at his family’s home in the pretense of seeking shelter from a storm, only to kill Claudius and Rebecca Knight and kidnap Raven. Frank and Lillian took him to the church and forced him to play the piano there.
The piano was a magical piano that could paint pictures, all which depended on the mood of the pianist and the type of music being played. For several years, Lillian had tried to play that piano, but she failed, as the piano had required that the only person who could play could be a talented pianist. Which happened to be poor Raven Knight.
Robert ends up leaving the church and returning home, swearing to never tell anyone what he had seen. But curiosity got the better of him and he finds himself returning to the abandoned church in order to see the strange boy who played the piano. Raven sees him and reveals that the piano produces a painting every time it is played. He also explains that the reason for his kidnapping was that the evil couple needed him to play the magical piano, which would produce paintings, which they would sell at the market for insane amounts of money.
Very soon, Rachel and Laurel find out about Raven and they too go to see him play. Robert questions Hubert about the Wildons and Hubert tells him that Lillian was once a talented pianist until her marriage to Frank and she had been banned from ever playing the piano for marrying a man who was not of her father’s choosing. He puts a curse on the couple that they would never have children, nor would they ever touch any musical instrument. Which had led to them kidnapping Raven and killing his parents.
Hubert then warns Robert to stay away from Raven due to the couple’s cruelty towards children. But that warning seemed to fall on deaf ears as the children began to befriend the strange boy who played the magical piano. Very soon, word got out about Raven’s remarkable talent, which pleased the Wildons so much that they demanded that Raven play the piano 5 times an hour every day. Raven, who once didn’t mind the fact that he had to play the piano (which was the only thing he had in the world), was now beginning to rebel against his cruel guardians and he also began demanding that they tell him the truth about his family.
For his part, Robert (along with Rachel, Laurel, and Jeffrey) schemes to get Raven away from his cruel foster family and expose the truth about them to the town. But the town itself is harboring a few secrets of its own, secrets that refused to be revealed. Robert is sure that everyone in the town is hiding something. Robert begins to suspect that there is evil in the town, from the way commerce is handled to the behavior of the people. He is sure that an evil sorcerer is controlling the town. No one but Raven seems to believe him, and news of the war seemed to take over the town gossip.
A stream of Jewish refugees arrive in town, as well as a large group of Black people who abandoned their homes in America. The mayor offered a huge amount of money to them if they were willing to abandon the country that had enslaved their ancestors and denied them even the basic rights.
In the fall, Robert, Rachel, Laurel, and Jeffrey begin school at the local schoolhouse, but Raven is forbidden to attend because Lillian needs him to play the magical piano. As reports of bombings in London and other cities get louder and louder, Robert can’t help but worry about his mother and grandmother and he also wonders if his father would survive the war at all.
2 years after they are sent away, Robert and the girls, along with Raven and Jeffrey discover that their father is in France. The day was June 6, 1944, the day Allied forces stormed into France and began the assault that would later end the German occupation in France. Robert’s cousin Theodore had been sent off to fight, along with scores of other young men in the town the year before; they are among those who were in France. Raven is still playing the magical piano, but now he’s forced to play for 10 hours every day. Luckily for him, Robert secretly teaches him how to read and write every night, and Raven teaches him how to play the piano.
At Christmas during that same year, Raven had composed a song called the Weeping Symphony, which details his sad life and the pain and abuse that he had suffered while living with the Wildons. Many people loved the song and some are questioning who the Wildons are and why they had been keeping Raven prisoner in the old church. On New Years Day 1945, the Wildons are arrested for kidnapping Raven and murdering his parents, but they claim that as long as the magical piano is in the church, Raven cannot leave the church. Raven is now more than determined to set himself free from the Wildons and have them punished for their crimes.
On April 15, 1945, just a few days after the death of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the town square catches on fire and several people, including Hubert, are killed. Robert and Raven think that Frank Wildon burned down the town because of his secrets being exposed. They decide that the only way to defeat Frank and rescue Raven is to destory the piano. So with a bit of sadness, the boys set fire to the church, which destroys the piano and turns the paintings into piles of rags.
Frank and Lillian are enraged at the sight of the burned piano, but it is too late for them to deal with Raven. Frank suddenly dissolves into dust and Lillian is found dead in the remains of the church. Robert and Raven tell the truth about what happened inside the church, but no one believes that they burned down the church, preferring the story that Lillian burned down the church in a fit of drunken rage. The townspeople find huge amounts of money inside a room that survived the fire as well as proof that the Wildons had kidnapped Raven. Most of the money goes toward repairing the town square and building a new church.
On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered, bringing the war in Europe to an end. Very soon, Robert’s mother arrives to collect them and bring them home. Raven goes with the Schwartz family and they all arrive in London in time to welcome the colonel (now promoted to general). With the rebuilding of homes and businesses and lives in process, Robert and Raven begin the difficult process of locating any member of the Knight family who was still alive.
But the story doesn’t end with the end of the war, as Raven had to track down his relatives, some of whom had been killed during the war. Robert (who is now 14), has to deal with the family rebuilding their home after it is destroyed, his grandmother’s death, and him having to grow up quickly in a matter of years.
In the future, Robert tells the story of the magical piano to his grandchildren, and you’ll discover that Raven Knight went on to become a celebrated pianist who composed countless tunes for TV shows and movies and the occassional special event, and his children and grandchildren carry on his legacy.
Here’s a picture of the cast for you: