We Couldn’t Leave Dinah

Another wartime story, this one with ponies: We Couldn’t Leave Dinah. Needs more gymkhanas.

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Caveat: I read this fairly recently, but couldn’t find my copy this week to refresh myself, so this might suffer slightly from the vagaries of my memory. Also (ironically), this post is even more spoilery than usual, so don’t read if this will bother you.

1941 saw the Carnegie Medal continue its focus on war with Mary Treadgold’s We Couldn’t Leave Dinah, a pony story cum wartime adventure set on the Channel Islands. Caroline, Mick and Thomas Templeton – English residents of fictional island Clerinel, and all members of their local Pony Club – are faced with evacuation to the UK as fears of a German occupation of the island grow. The Germans invade the same night as the evacuation, and in the chaos Caroline and Mick manage to get themselves left behind, and end up concealing themselves and their ponies in a cave originally meant as the new headquarters for the Pony Club. With the help of their French friend Peter, they manage to organise a way off the island for themselves, though not before Mick is forced to teach the daughter of the German general occupying their home how to ride (he masquerades as their French servant). In the process, he uncovers some information which can be used against the Germans. They depart the island in possession of this information, but leaving behind their pony Dinah, who they conclude will be safe with the Gernam child Nannerl until they can return for her.

Mary Treadgold was inspired to write the story after reading many terrible pony books  while working as editor of Heinemann, and this is generally referred to as a pony book. I was quite excited about this, because I had my prescribed horsey phase as a small girl and can still get excited about winning the gymkhana with the pony tricked out in lovingly restored tack found in the old stables. As the summary above demonstrates, however, there’s quite a lot more going on in this book and I found it rather lacking in pony detail. Even though the children are obsessed with the Pony Club, it felt more like a plot device than a central focus. I liked the book less as a result, although this says more about me than about the virtues of the plot. The drama of the plot focuses around the danger that the children will get caught and their accidental involvement in an English spy ring operating on the island, and while I’m willing to accept this in theory, in practice I’m more excited about who wins the gymkhana.

The most interesting part of the novel (to me, anyway) is the way that it explores changing identities and allegiances in the context of war. The book begins with a fancy dress party organised for the Pony Club by the new President of the Pony Club, Peter, who is one of the French residents of the island. The party provides an excuse for a group of Germans to land in disguse and take over key strategic points on the island, thus facilitating the invasion. This sets up a running tension through the book: Caroline sees the Germans and later puts two and two together, and so the children are faced with the prospect that Peter’s father – and possibly Peter himself – are in fact German collaborators. At the end of the book, it’s revealed that Peter’s father did collaborate with the Germans, but only because they have family in Germany who are being held hostage against his cooperation. The genuine sympathy with which Treadgold portrays this character is important given that she was writing shortly after the establishment of the Vichy government in France: it’s made clear that this has been an agonising decision. The introduction of the German child, Nannerl, is also key: although they imagine she will be a horrible Nazi, she turns out to be a small, rather comical figure who shares their love of horses and desperately wants to learn to ride.  They find her desperately annoying and inconvenient, but in the same way as they are annoyed by their younger brother, and during the course of the book they win her over. At the end of the novel, they are not only sure that Nannerl will take good care of Dinah, they make her an honorary member of the Pony Club and look forward to the possibility that they might meet again as fellow members of the Club in happier times. There’s something rather wonderful about the fact that the wartime committee chose a book with such a clear message about the potential for unity across nationalities, and with such a sympathy for those caught between what was moral and what was safe.

Despite these good qualities, Treadgold’s portrayal of the actual non-English characters is rather clunky, and there is just a shadow of a sense that whatever the good qualities of other nations there’s something special about being English. There’s also a bit of a gendered quality to the characterisation: once the two children are living in the cave Caroline is largely quite anxious, while Mick gets drawn into the discovery of a possible spy ring and becomes much more brave and adventurous. There are some nice bits of characterisation in this section (when my copy eventually reappears I’ll come back and add a quote), but this story does feel more gendered than any of the previous winners.

Plotwise – lack of gymkhanas aside – this does clip along well and there’s a reasonable level of realism. Based on the title, I had always imagined this was a story in which the children actually refused to be evacuated, but in fact although they’re sad about leaving their pony, it’s pure accident that they don’t make it onto the boat and they’re pretty panicked about it. And despite my quibbles about the gendered nature of it, I like the fact that hiding out in a cave is not portrayed as all a jolly good adventure – it’s all a bit nervewracking and uncomfortable.

This is the second winner I’ve come to which is out-of-print, but it survived much longer than Visitors From London: the last edition in WorldCat is 1982, two decades later than the last edition of Kitty Barne’s book. I find this surprising in terms of quality: this isn’t a bad book, but it’s nowhere near as vivid or interesting as  Visitors from London. I suspect that the pony story aspect helped a lot here, since it lends itself to marketing – I’ve noticed that other stories with a pony element tend to have that played up on the jacket, however slight the focus on ponies within.

1941 was slim pickings for children’s publishing, which probably helped Treadgold: Ransome’s Missee Lee came out this year, but was ineligible since at this time authors couldn’t win more than once (not sorry about this, Missee Lee is the most problematic of Ransome’s books by a long chalk), and P.L. Travers also published an evacuation story, I Go By Sea, I Go By Land. I haven’t read the latter, so I’m not sure how We Couldn’t Leave Dinah holds up in comparison (cue yet another book purchase, whoops). I’m not convinced it is really an outstanding book, but on the whole I’d rather have this one celebrated than no award at all. Marcus Crouch, though, suggests that the award was premature in terms of Treadgold’s writing career – I enjoyed this one enough for that to pique my interest in her other works.

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 6/10

Plot: 6/10

Characterisation: 5/10

Themes: War, evacuation,  ponies, nationhood, adventure, spies

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Illustrator: Stuart Tresilian (but my paperback edition had none of the illustrations, so I can’t comment on these)

Author’s nationality/race: (A new category, I realised the other day I’d like to keep track of this, and also not note race only when the author was non-white. Not that this is likely to be an issue for a while.) White English

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visitors from London

A forgotten treasure: Kitty Barne’s Visitors from London

The first Carnegie Medal winner published during the war years (The Radium Woman having slightly predated the start of the war) tackled the war itself: Kitty Barne’s Visitors From London  is an evacuation story. It’s actually a sequel to Barne’s earlier novel Family Footlights, which is about the same family, but since I haven’t read Family Footlights I can say with some confidence that it stands alone. This is a summer holiday story with some genetic similarity to Arthur Ransome’s books, but with a wartime twist. The book takes place in the first months of the war, when Operation Pied Piper was put into action. The four Farrar children are spending the summer in the country with their Aunt Myra, but what promises to be a peaceful holiday is interrupted by the news that evacuees are to be billeted at the nearby farmhouse, Steadings. The Farrars and Aunt Myra are roped into preparing for the evacuees and taking care of them: hijinks ensue. By the end of the summer, the evacuees have mostly retreated back to London (as many did during the ‘phony war’) and the children return to their boarding school.

This is the first of the winning novels which isn’t still in print; according to Keith Barker it was the first of the Carnegie books to go out of print. Both Barker and Pat Thomson (writing in Carousel) seem to find this unsurprising and regard the book as rather dated. This baffles me, because I found it utterly fresh and engaging. One of the criticisms often levelled at children’s books of this period is that their child characters are preternaturally goodtempered, well behaved, and respectful to their elders. It’s a criticism I previously took at face value, but reading this book really underlines how lazy a characterisation of the period it is. All Barne’s characters are very distinct, realistic, and not above a bit of family discord: I particularly enjoyed the youngest girl, Sally, who has frequent burst of outrage when things don’t go her way. I also loved the evacuee Lily, an enormously competent twelve-year-old who has cared for her two younger siblings since the death of her mother. Barne does a great job of depicting the complex jockeying for position between the evacuees and the Steadings people, between members of the different families, and between children and adults. Typically, it’s the children who win out in these scenarios, often by subtly manipulating the adults – as when 10-year-old Jimmy succeeds in deflecting the wrath of a local warden bent on accusng them of breaking the blackout by informing him in a concerned manner that he’s left his car running – an offence during wartime.

Barker suggests that the book is rather patronising towards the evacuees, but although they are certainly a source of humour I found Barne’s treatment of all the working-class characters both respectful and (as far as I can judge from this historical distance) realistic. Lily is comical in her role as miniature mother, but Barne also makes it clear that she is in fact a very competent parent who loves her siblings and does a good job of looking after them. She has a moment of triumph right at the beginning of the book when it’s discovered that despite all the talk of ‘iron rations’ she is the only person who has had the sense to bring a  tin opener, and there’s also a nice indication that she is smart and has potential to do more than work in a factory (the fate she expects once she turns 15). Along with Lily – an honorary ‘mother’ there’s Mrs Fell, ‘pretty free with her slaps’ and deeply suspicious of the country; Mrs Jacobson, ‘dark, plump, good-humoured, inclined to make the best of things’; and Mrs Thompson, controlled by her husband, terrified of the bombs and just about everything else; all accompanied by their children. In other words, we don’t have a generic portrait of the working classes here, but a much more nuanced portrayal of diverse people from very subtly different backgrounds who respond in different but understandable ways to the strange situation in which they find themselves.

Some of the themes which were present in the other books I’ve written about so far resurface here. There is a strong sense of the value of the countryside as a source of enduring stability and tradition. At the start of the book, Gerda (the eldest Farrar girl) imagines the farmers’ wives who have inhabited the old house ‘whisking in and out of the doors, hanging up their bacon on those hooks, making their cheeses in that small dairy’, and the book is full of such details of country life. The knowledge of the shepherds  – Old Tolhurst and Young Tolhurst (like Ransome’s Billies, both are old men) – is given special respect both by the characters of the book and by the narrative voice. One of the evacuees, Fred Fell, is immediately drawn to the shepherds and proves to be a natural at keeping sheep; in an interesting linking of place and race, Young Tolhurst suggests that the name ‘Fell’ suggests it is in his blood. Yet the book is not solely backwards looking. Barne pokes a little fun at middle-class attempts to revive ‘traditional’ ways through the character of Mrs Meredith-Smith, who vainly attempts to persuade children to play the ancient Sussex game of stoolball, and is generally portrayed as well-meaning but rather sentimental. More fundamentally, the success of the whole community is derived not from a return to ‘traditional’ ways of being but from a willingness to accept change and work together. I share Kim Reynolds’ view (in her forthcoming book Left Behind) that Barne presents the Steadings community as a sort of democratic experiment: everyone has to work together and accept one another’s peculiarities in order to achieve a greater good.

Ruth Gervis, who illustrated the first edition, also deserves credit for her charming and lively pencil drawings. Her contribution to this means that the Carnegie Medal in its early years had something of a family quality: as I mentioned in my Ballet Shoes post, Gervis was Noel Streatfeild’s sister, and Kitty Barne was their cousin-in-law. (The literary connection, however, was that they were published by Dent.) She’s a brilliant illustrator, and surprisingly for a wartime book was given quite a bt of latitude: there are 40 illustrations scattered throughout the text.

Why did this book not ‘stick’ when it’s so lively? The last reprint by Dent seems to have been 1960, and then there was one by Cedric Chivers (who seem to be largely a book binding firm – anyone know more about them?) in 1972. This is about the time that books by people who were children in the war started to appear – Carrie’s War came out in 1973. So perhaps this didn’t quite chime with the vision of the war which was being created in retrospect. Or perhaps the impulse to create a new literature in the 1960s contributed to this being mischaracterised as rather more staid and nostalgic than it really is. Whatever the reason, this seems to me to be a prime candidate for a reprint.

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 9/10

Plot: 9/10 – a little episodic

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Home, heritage, history, modernity, war, evacuation, change

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Ruth Gervis

 

 

The Radium Woman

As war looms, the Carnegie Medal honours feminism and science with The Radium Woman.

The Carnegie winner for 1939 can lay claim to a number of firsts. It was the first non-fiction winner and the first by an author born outside of the United Kingdom (Eleanor Dooley was born in Jamaica, although she moved to England at the age of 7). According to Keith Barker, it was also the first (and probably the only) winner to be made over the heads of the award committee: he says that they had not wanted to make any award that year, but were overruled.I’m hoping to find out more about this in due course, but haven’t had a chance to dig into it yet.

The book is a biography of Marie Curie, adapted from the biography for adults written by Marie’s daughter Ève Curie. I confess that this is one book I wasn’t too enthusiastic about reading: I’m not a great reader of biographies, and the jacket of my Puffin edition is even more boring than the first edition jacket which graces this post. The idea that it was a forced choice for the Medal also made me rather wary. As it turned out, though, I found it fascinating. I know very little about Marie Curie, so almost everything in the book was new information for me, and she’s a pretty amazing character (as one might suspect from the fact she was the first woman to win a Nobel prize). Doorly also opens the book in a way totally calculated to win my sympathies:

Why not? Why not? Why not? Why shouldn’t Manya be allowed to read? She didn’t ask the question. She would not think of asking her gentle, beautiful mother why not; she only puzzled her own little stubborn head where a pair of bright, grey-blue eyes looked penetratingly out from under a shock of yellow hair.

Give me a female character who loves to read and isn’t allowed and you’ve already halfway won my heart. Refreshingly, it turns out that there’s not any oppressive reason for her not being allowed to read; it’s that she’s so precocious (having learnt to read before her older sister) that her parents are worried about hot-housing her. In fact, one of the themes that runs through this book is the idea of family as totally supportive: we see Manya/Marie’s family all working together to look after one another, and later when she marries Pierre there’s very much the sense of them working together to support one another and their family. The book isn’t explicit about it, but I got the strong sense that this foundation of mutual support was key in allowing Marie to achieve the things she did.

Hard work is a theme which has been present in the other Carnegie winners so far, and it’s certainly a major theme of this book. We see Marie first working hard as a governess to earn money to support her sister in Paris, then in Paris herself working feverishly to gain as much education as possible. She is clearly someone who loves her work, to the extent that she organises her entire life around freeing up as much time for her scientific work as possible (for example, she has almost no furniture so there’s less stuff to clean) and frequently forgets to eat. One thing I really liked about this book is that all of these details are presented exactly the way they would be in a book about a man; that is, they’re just reported as facts which illustrate something about her intellectual commitment to her work, without being an implicit commentary on her status as a woman or mother. The book does take it for granted that when she married and had children, she was the one who would have to be responsible for running the household, but this is just treated as another obstacle to her getting on with her work. It’s also made very clear that she loves her children, but that her work comes first, and there’s no implication this compromises her love for her children. From a feminist perspectve, this is all very refreshing. I wonder how much this reflects the times? It strikes me that the idea that you must be terribly conflicted about combining motherhood and a passion for a career might be more acute now than it was in 1939.

Another major preoccupation of the book is Marie’s Polishness. Dooley emphasises her struggles in the context of Russian controlled Poland, her early work supporting Polish nationalism (for example, she teaches village children to read when working as a governess, despite knowing that this could result in her being sent to Siberia), and her lifelong affection for her country. There’s also quite a lot of emphasis on her love for the countryside; her one year of freedom and play in between school and starting to work really hard for a living is spent in the country enjoying traditional countryside hijinks. It’s easy to see from these themes why this was a book which might have appealed to the Library Association on the eve of war.

Is this as good a book as the others on the winning list so far? It’s a little hard to judge given that it’s non-fiction, although it’s written in a fairly novelistic style. It does have a certain tone to it, especially once it gets to Marie’s adult life, which is a little old-fasioned, though rather difficult to describe. And I think a novellist might have made more of some of the more heart-rending aspects of Marie’s life, notably the deaths of her mother and her husband. But the book is definitely compelling, and holds up well for a modern reader. I’m not sure whether children today would enjoy it, but I can imagine it having a MASSIVE impact on a reader (especially a female reader) in 1939. I definitely think the Library Association were right to give this book an award rather than have no award at all, and I’m glad to have read it. In fact, the more I write about it the more awesome I think it is. If I had a daughter I would give her this to read.

Special bonus passage to finish: a reminder that Twitter did not invent trolls. This takes place after Marie wins her second Nobel prize and after her husband has died tragically young:

One would have thought that all the world would have gloried in her as a scientist and treated her gently as a sad woman. But, unfortunately, there is a strange disease which causes certain people to feel very cruel when they hear of someone being very successful or very beautiful. Marie was both, and suddenly people began to write her anonymous letters and to tell extraordinary lies about her and accuse her of doing wrong things of which she had never dreamed.

HATERS TO THE LEFT. Marie Curie has TWO NOBEL PRIZES and two beautiful daughters one of whom went on to write a biography about how awesome she was.

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 7/10
 

Plot: 10/10 for awesome things done by Marie Curie; 7/10 for the way they are arranged within the book

Characterisation: 5/10

Themes: Work, science, biography, feminism

Publisher: Heinemann

Illustrator: Robert Gibbings

 

 

 

 

The Circus is Coming

Noel Streatfeild returns to the Carnegie with a story of circus life.

Having missed out on the Carnegie Medal in 1936, Noel Streatfeild got her win in 1938 with The Circus is Coming (now commonly published as Circus Shoes, which annoys me no end as there is no shoe theme or link with Ballet Shoes *grumps*). This year also marks the beginning of some vocal disagreement about the Medal: only a handful of the committee turned up to the award meeting, a fact which was strongly criticised by the pioneering children’s librarian Eileen Colwell. Not unjustly, Colwell felt that the Medal should be awarded by people with a strong interest in children’s books (at this point it was still not awarded by librarians with a specific expertise in this area), and at the very least a full committee. I’m not sure whether she actually disagreed with the choice of The Circus is Coming, or just the rather slapdash way it was chosen. Certainly, Streatfeild’s book isn’t the most famous children’s book published that year (The Sword and the Stone also appeared in 1936, for example) and this isn’t one of Streatfeild’s own best-known titles.

Interestingly, this book combines some of the qualities of Ballet Shoes with the other commended title for 1936, Sampson’s Circus. We have the circus setting of the latter, but with more of the career focus of the former. The book opens with orphans Peter and Santa contemplating the problem of where they will live following the death of their aunt Rebecca, who has taken care of them since the death of their parents in a railway accident.Having been told that they will be sent to orphanages, they recollect the existence of an uncle Gus, and figure out (via postcards he has sent their aunt) that he is part of a circus. Naturally, they decide to run away to the circus, and the majority of the book is dedicated to their life there, their growing understanding of the circus world, and their gradual assimilation as they gain circus skills. The book culminates in them saving the circus horses from a potentially devasting fire (an element which I realise as I write gives this book an element of Pigeon Post as well as the other two 1936 titles) and being accepted as permanent members of the circus.

Like Ballet Shoes, this book sounds as if it would be pure wish fulfilment, but ends up being soomething much more substantial. In a lesser novel of this genre, Peter and Santa would turn out to be circus prodigies almost as soon as they arrived in the circus. However, not only does Streatfeild resist this route, she gives us protagonists who for most of the book aren’t really good at anything. The first chapter introduces us to Peter and Santa’s rather peculiar background: we’re told that ‘Being lady’s maid to a duchess has made Aunt Rebecca suppose that only dukes and duchesses, and perhaps kings and queens, could be right’. Aunt Rebecca accordingly does her best to bring Peter and Santa up in the way that the duchess had recommended for children, an effort which is considerably hampered by her very limited income. As a result, they’ve been tutored by an odd assortment of unqualified tutors rather than sent to school, dressed in ‘best’ clothes all the time, and become generally rather secluded and timid. They’ve been encouraged to think of themselves as rather special, so it’s a shock when first the people they meet when running away, and later the circus people, find them both odd and rather dull in their lack of any ‘useful’ knowledge. I’m a little ambivalent about the way this is set up: there’s definitely a classist element in the way Aunt Rebecca is implied to be trying and failing to ape her betters, and it’s not insigificant that one of the turning points in the way Peter and Santa see themselves is their discovery that their parents and grandparents were ‘quite simple people’ – all domestic servants. On the other hand, all the working-class characters in the book (which is most of them, if we class circus performers as working-class) are portrayed with complete respect and realism, and Gus is shown to be proud of his family. More importantly, the theme of the book as a whole centres around the value of work: everyone in the circus takes it for granted that working hard is important and is baffled by Peter and Santa’s rather passive attitude. Work is explicitly presented as an opportunity to shape your own destiny: one character tells Santa  ‘I don’t understand you kids. If I wasn’t any good at my books, I’d start practising up for something I could do. I wouldn’t want to be pushed into some job just because I hadn’t worked at anything special’. This is a theme which is present in Ballet Shoes, but comes back even more strongly here: we never get to see Peter and Santa shine at their circus skills (haute ecole riding and acrobatics respectively), but we do get the satisfaction of seeing them work and gradually improve.

Like Ballet Shoes, this book is shaped by Noel Streatfeild’s own experiences: she travelled with Bertam Mills circus for several months in preparation for writing the novel. This really shows in the portrait of circus life, which has a specificity which is completely absent from Sampson’s Circus. A lot of attention is paid to the different acts, for example, and the proper terminology for each: there’s a Risley Act (involving juggling people), haute ecole riding, clowns and augustes, and different types of trapeze work. Having spent a short time with a circus, I was intrigued by how many details were the same: for example, Streatfeild mentions the clogs worn by performers on their way to the tent (nowadays more likely to be Crocs!). All of this is what really makes the book live.

The Circus is Coming isn’t quite as readable and accessible as Ballet Shoes, not least because Peter and Santa are not necessarily very likeable characters. They’re very believable, though, especially in their interactions with one another: Streatfeild does a good job of portraying children who fight realistically but also have a genuine bond with one another. In fact, all the characters are well-drawn: I liked the fact that we’re allowed to see their uncle’s point of view, and Streatfeild is frank about the fact that he finds them something of an inconvenience and not all that easy to get on with, especially at first. The foreign characters are all well-drawn, too; although she’s sometimes a little heavy-handed on the bad English, there’s a sense that this is masking real people and real cultures  who just can’t necessarily express themselves completely. It helps that Peter and Santa are not particularly admirable, as this means that when they judge the other characters we tend to feel that they are the ones who are wrong, rather than allying ourselves with their point of view. Interestingly, this is the third book in this project so far which features a ‘foreign’ character asserting their Britishness.

As I’ve established previously, I love Noel Streatfeild and I really enjoyed this book. It’s less overtly radical than Ballet Shoes, but in asserting the value of work and the value of the people who work hard, I think it does have a somewhat progressive stance. I personally would pick this over The Sword in the Stone, though clearly Streatfeild and I are on the wrong side of history in this regard. Perhaps this is the first of the Carnegie Medal winners to get the award that ‘should’ have gone to an earlier book by the same author, but it stands up in its own right.

 

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 8/10

Plot: 7/10 (There’s not a huge amount to the plot, and it’s really more about the characters and the setting)

Characterisation: 8/10

Themes: Family, change, working class, work, performance, circus

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Steven Spurrier

 

 

The Family from One End Street

A charming family story that’s more radical than it might seem.

In my last post, I suggested that had the inaugural Carnegie gone to Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, it would have set a very different tone for the Medal. However, the second winner – Eve Garnett’s The Family from One End Street – is  closer in spirit to Streatfeild’s book than Ransome’s. This is another family story, with an urban setting, and some of the same interest in change and modernity. Whereas Streatfeild’s family live in what can fairly be called ‘genteel poverty’ and have a generally middle-class set of values, though, The Family from One End Street are not only working class, but poor:

MRS RUGGLES was a Washerwoman and her husband was a Dustman. ‘Very suitable too,’ she would say, though whether this referred to Mr Ruggles himself, or the fact that they both, so to speak, cleaned up after other people, it was hard to decide.

[…]

There were a great many Ruggles children – boys and girls, and a baby that was really a boy but didn’t count either way yet.

The neighbours pitied Jo and Rosie for having such a large family, and called it ‘Victorian’; but the Dustman and his wife were proud of their numerous girls and boys, all-growing-up-fine-and-strong-one-behind-the-other-like-steps-in-a-ladder, and-able-to-wear-each-other’s-clothes-right-down-to-the-baby, so that really it was only two sets, girl and boy, summer and winter, Mrs Ruggles had to buy, except Boots.

The book consists of a series of gentle adventures: one for each of the older Ruggles children (Lily-Rose, Kate, twins Jim and John, and Jo Jr.), plus three which focus on Mr and Mrs Ruggles and/or the babies (Peg and William), and one story about the whole family to round the book off. It’s illustrated throughout with lovely pen and ink sketches by Garnett (who was actually an artist first). It reminds me a little of Milly Molly Mandy in its tone and the generally low-stakes adventures, but the characters feel much more real than Milly-Molly-Mandy and her friends (at least to me). Partly this reflects the fact that the adventures are genuinely rooted in the social setting.  Lily-Rose’s story, for example, is a ‘good deed gone wrong’ story of the kind that isn’t unusual in books from around this time. Arriving home early from school, she determines to do some of her mother’s ironing as her Girl Guide good deed for the day. Inevitably, she uses a too-hot iron on a customer’s artificial silk petticoat, and then memorably watches in horror at the petticoat ‘shrivelling… shrinking… shrivelling up… running away before her eyes!’ This is a scene that I could imagine in E. Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods, or in Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories, but in both those series the main risk would be getting into trouble. In Garnett’s book, there’s the potential for a much more serious consequence: this is Mrs Ruggle’s business, after all, and damaging something compromises her reputation for skill and reliability. Of course it all ends happily, thanks to an understanding customer, but the anxiety about Lily-Rose’s mistake is much more real than it would be in the more middle-class narratives.

Eve Garnett was motivated to write the novel after spending time in London’s East End producing illustrations for Evelyn Sharp’s study of the urban poor The London Child (1927). By her own account, she was moved to do more to publicise the conditions poor children were living in, and on being told that it would be only possible to publish an illustrated book if it was for children, wrote The Family From One End Street herself. She later completed a book of illustrations called Is it Well With the Child? (1938), which comprised sketches of the children she encountered in the East End and brief captions. It portrays more extreme poverty than The Family From One End Street, but has some of the same charm and humour.

Portraying a working-class family groundbreaking at the time it was published – the Carnegie website notes that several publishers turned it down before Frederick Muller took it on. By the 1960s, though, it was beginning to be regarded as a rather patronising depiction. Rosemary Manning, writing in 1966, characterised it as a ‘perfunctory glance from outside’ at a working-class family. It’s certainly a cosy portrayal, and the book as a whole suggests that the family are poor but happy. It’s also fair to say that at times Garnett shifts perspective in a way that  makes it clear we’re seeing the Ruggles from outside, for example when the Ruggles visit an art gallery and puzzle over an army officer having time to paint; it’s clear that the reader is expected to recognise that ‘Sargent’ is a name.

Manning was particularly critical of Garnett’s description of Joe Ruggles as ‘a contented sort of man’ and her assertion that ‘So long as he had his job and his family were well and happy, and he could smoke his pipe and work in his garden, see his mates at the Working Men’s Club once or twice a week and have a good Blow Out on a Bank Holiday, he wanted nothing more’. This is problematic in its reproduction of the stereotype of the contented poor, but I think Manning’s criticisms overlook the radical edge of the book. If Joe himself is contented, this is questioned within the text, both directly (by the artist who is troubled by the fact that the small reward he gives Joe for returning some lost money is enough to secure the happiness of the Ruggles family) and by the general sense of aspiration within the book. Throughout the novel Garnett gives the impression that the Ruggles are no less intelligent, creative, or virtuous than any middle-class family: they are just poorer. The Ruggles don’t understand everything in the art gallery, but they are moved enough by Sargent’s painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose to name their daughter after it. (In finding that link, I also discovered that I missed some of the cultural assumptions of that scene:  the Ruggles wonder what the title is supposed to refer to, unaware – as I was – that it comes from a song by Joseph Mazzinghi.)  Kate wins a scholarship to grammar school, passing the exam ‘ninth in the whole district’, and throughout the book Garnett suggests that the state has a role in ensuring that the poor are not only preserved from destitution, but also given the opportunity to pursue their aspirations. The foundations of the Welfare State are here.

Well-meaning political views don’t save a book from being patronising, however, radical, but to my mind the absolute realness of the characters and the sympathy with which they are portrayed does make such criticisms unjust. The Ruggles have a happy home, but their poverty is never forgotten about: from the opening mention of Mrs Ruggles’ worry about boots to her anxiety about Joe revealing the split in his Sunday suit by straphanging in the Tube with the ‘wrong’ arm, we’re given many little reminders of the way having no money shapes your experience of the world. The children are lively and vivid: as a child I particularly sympathised with ‘clever Kate’, dreaming about ‘Latin and geometry and things they didn’t “do” at the Council school’ but also passionately keen to wear her new uniform on an ‘outing’. (Yes, I was a nerd – and just as excited as Kate when I finally studied Latin during my MA.)

The Family From One End Street is still in print, and as is probably evident I both read and loved it as a child. So far the Carnegie committee seem to have done well on picking books with staying power (although of course winning the Medal may be partially responsible for them sticking around).It’s a much easier read than Pigeon Post, both in the sense that it’s less literary, and due to the fact that it’s really aimed at considerably younger children, but I think this obscures the truly ground-breaking qualities of the book. It was a radical choice for the Carnegie, especially in light of the fact that The Hobbit was a contender that same year (I believe it was nominated, though I can’t lay my hand on a reliable source for that just now). I think The Hobbit would have been much more of a continuation of the style and theme honoured the year before with Pigeon Post, and given the very favourable critical reception of Tolkien’s novel the choice of Garnett’s novel a brave one. The Ruggles may have had a ‘Victorian’ family, but this was a novel which looked to a new future for Britain. Bravo, Carnegie committee.

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 10/10 (I’m starting to feel monotonous, but I love this book!)

Plot: 8/10 (It’s more episodic than a fully worked novel, though each episode is a gem in and of itself and the whole does hang together)

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Family, change, working class, socialism, adventure

Publisher: Frederick Muller

Illustrator: Eve Garnett

 

 

Pigeon Post

Pigeon Post gets the Carnegie Medal off to a good start with a realistically plotted story which celebrates the rural landscapes of Britain.

The Carnegie Medal kicked off in 1936 with Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post, the sixth book in the Swallows and Amazons series. Whenever I see this mentioned, the general consensus always seems to be that it was a ‘safe’ award which was really recognising Arthur Ransome’s body of work as a whole. Keith Barker, in his history of the Carnegie, says that Arthur Ransome himself said it wasn’t his best work. Well, I’m here to say that all these commentators are wrong, wrong, wrong. This far exceeded my expectations.

This is one of the Lake District books, and brings together all the main characters from the previous five books: John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker (the Swallows); Nancy and Peggy Blackett (the Amazons) and Dick and Dorothea (the D’s). There’s very little sailing in this book: instead, the plot centres around their efforts prospecting for gold up on the fells. There’s an enemy – the mysterious Squashy Hatted man who seems also to be  seeking gold – and a more realistic external threat in the form of a severe drought which has everyone in the area worried about fell fires.

I love the opening of the book, which gives a great ‘Previously, in the Swallows and Amazons series…’ via a dialogue between Titty and Roger and a farmer’s wife on the train, who knows Mrs Blackett:

“Aye, and her daughters too, and her brother Mr Turner that’s for ever gallivanting off to foreign parts …”

“We know him too,” said Roger. “We call him …” And he stopped short. There was no point in giving away Captain Flint’s name to natives.

“You’ve been here before, likely,” said the farmer’s wife. “Oh yes,” said Titty. “We always stay at Holly Howe … at least mother does … but Mrs Jackson’s got visitors for the next two weeks … Mrs Blackett’s having us till then because mother didn’t want Bridget to give us all whooping-cough.”

“We’ve come straight from school,” said Roger. “Eh,” said the farmer’s wife. “I know all about you. You’ll be the young folk that were camping on the island down the lake two years since when Mr Turner had his houseboat broke into. And you were here again last winter when the lake was froze over. But I thought there was four of you …”

“Five, with Bridget,” said Titty. “John and Susan must be here already. It isn’t so far from their schools.”

“And weren’t you friends with the two at Mrs Dixon’s?”

“Dick and Dorothea Callum,” said Titty.

We get a quick primer on all our characters, and set up a few things which are instrumental to the plot: the absence of Mrs Walker, (which results in a recurring anxiety on the part of Mrs Blackett about what the children are getting up to), the fact that the Swallows aren’t at the Jacksons (and thus won’t have access to their sailing boat), and Captain Flint’s penchant for foreign travel. It also subtly works to establish the Walkers as belonging in this community, which is a recurrent theme in this book.

Ransome is often criticised for writing essentially static characters – Geoffrey Trease was particularly vocal about this – but the care he takes to set things up here belies that. It’s important to Ransome to set up a reason why they’re not simply repeating the activities of the first book (which would be boring) – a love of sailing is really central to the Swallows’ and Amazons’ personalities, so it would be out of character if they just randomly decided to do something different. It’s also important that we know who these characters are, because they are slowly growing and changing and the adventures of the previous books actually matter. The whole book is actually full of lovely little character moments: one of the best scenes is when they are trying dowsing and it actually works for Titty, who totally freaks out. Her reaction is perfect for her character: she’s the most imaginative and sensitive of the Walkers, not used to being in the limelight (as second youngest), and  not really expecting anything to happen since the older children, whom she respects, haven’t managed to get it to work. I also love the way Susan is portrayed in this book: Susan is one of the characters who gets short shrift from a lot of critics because she’s a kind of ‘miniature adult’ who is mostly concerned with washing up and bedtimes. She’s definitely not the character who most readers identify with, and she’s partly there to fulfil a plot function by being the ‘serious’ one who grown-ups trust to make their undsupervised adventures safe. In Pigeon Post, though, we actually get a glimpse of what it’s like for Susan to be the one who plays this role: it comes across most powerfully in the moment when the older ones realise that the younger children are in the middle of a fell fire, and Susan reacts with the kind of horror that only comes with being the person who really feels responsible for everyone else’s wellbeing. I’m certain Susan’s character resonates more for me at 35 than she would have when I was 8, but I think it’s still important to the book as a whole that she’s there – and Ransome’s readers in 1936 were substantially more likely to have responsibility for the younger siblings than children of the same age are today.

I find Pigeon Post an interesting pick for the very first Carnegie Medal, because it is deeply concerned with the land, with ideas of belonging, and with heritage and history. The earlier books in the Swallows and Amazons series involve a lot of games in which the children imagine the British landscape as a foreign space, but that’s more or less absent here. The prospecting plot is motivated by their desire to prove to Captain Flint that rather than travelling overseas, he should ‘look for things here’, and the whole plot thereafter is concerned with uncovering valuable things in the landscape. Their prospecting does eventually bear fruit (although they find copper rather than gold), and Titty’s success at dowsing also allows them to find water, which in the context of the drought is even more precious. They draw on various bits of ‘traditional’ knowledge: a local story about finding gold in the fells, the water divining, making charcoal, and the use of homing pigeons for the titular pigeon post. The tension that runs through the book is also fundamentally to do with belonging: the farmer whose land they are staying on is deeply concerned about the possibility that they will accidentally set fire to the fells, and it’s clear that she sees them as lacking in a real appreciation of the importance of the land and the degree to which a fire would be devastating to local livelihoods. The climax of the book, in which the children save the farm from a fire with the aid of a well they have created and a homing pigeon who alerts the local fire volunteers, serves to resolve this conflict and confirm them as ‘belonging’ to the land. What we have here, then, is a beautifully constructed narrative about identity.

In case it is not clear, I LOVE this book and think it absolutely holds up after 80 years. I know from teaching Ransome’s books that my students, at least, tend to find him heavy going, and I think it’s probably the case that his appeal today isn’t what it was in the 1930s. This is a longer, slower novel than most children (or adults) are used to now. That said, I think that there are still children who would enjoy this book. There’s also nothing in it that would make me cringe at giving it to a child, which is nice for a book from 1936. A++ inaugural Carnegie committee.

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 10/10 (let’s start by setting the bar high!)

Plot: 9/10

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Home, heritage, history, camping and tramping

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Illustrator: Arthur Ransome

Competition

There were two highly commended books in 1936: Howard Spring’s Sampson’s Circus (Faber and Faber) and Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (Dent). We’ll be hearing from Streatfeild again…