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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…