The Wind On the Moon

An interesting departure for the Carnegie Medal with The Wind on the Moon

Advertisements

The Wind on the Moon: first edition book jacket1944 brought a change in the rules for the Carnegie Medal: having begun as an award for any book published for children in the British Empire, then retrenched in 1941 to cover only books published in England,  the criteria were revised again to specify that it should go to ‘an outstanding book for children by a British subject domiciled in the United Kingdom (Great Britain and Northern Ireland), published in Great Britain during the year’. Owen Dudley Evans suggests that limiting the Medal’s scope to England may well have been an inadvertant consequence of the tendency (strong then and not absent now) to use ‘England’ as a synedoche for ‘Britain’; whether or not this was the case, the case for revising in 1944 must certainly have been strengthened by the fact that the proposed winner was a Welsh-born, Scotland-bred writer with strong Orcadian and Scottish nationalist sympathies.

The winner in question, Eric Linklater, was the first Carnegie Medal winner to have made his name largely in the realm of literature for adults. His third novel, Juan in America (1931), was particularly successful, and later novels, along with some political ambitions (he stood as a Scottish nationalist parliamentory candidate in 1933), aligned him with the Scottish Renaissance. Interestingly, some of Linklater’s Scottish literary preoccupations align him with some of the trends I’ve observed in earlier winners of the Carnegie Medal: he was interested in the Scandinavian / Viking heritage of Orkney and many of his books sought to connect readers with an Old Norse literary heritage. The Wind on the Moon, however – the book which was awarded the Carnegie Medal – doesn’t reflect this interest.

The Wind on the Moon follows the adventures of sisters Dinah and  Dorinda, whose father warns them on the eve of his departure to war that a wind is blowing on the moon, and that if they should be naughty while the wind is blowing they will be stuck being naughty for a whole year. Naturally, despite their best intentions, the girls are naughty, which kicks off a year of naughtiness and strange adventures. They eat until they are as round as balloons, cry until they are as thin as matches, turn into kangaroos and live in the zoo, and finally travel secretly inside furniture vans across Europe, in the company of a puma, a falcon and their dancing teacher, to rescue their father from the dungeon of the evil Count Hulagu Bloot. The book originated as a story Linklater told to his two daughters to quiet them after they were caught in a rainshower, and I think this shows: it’s a set of loosely connected narratives which have the feel of extemporaneous story-telling rather than the coherence of a more formally composed narrative. For this reason I think this would be a good book to read as a bedtime story; in fact, given its length (it has thirty-nine substantial chapters) I think that many children of the right age to enjoy this story (I’d say the 7-10 crowd) might struggle with accessing this one alone.

Linklater served with distinction in the First World War, and was in active service during the Second, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the war has a discernible impact on this book. Count Hulagu Bloot is a tyrant of a kind which would have seemed all too familiar in 1944. We are told that the people of Bombardy:

[H]ave become a silent people, because [their] infamous Tyrant, Count Hulagu Bloot, has a thousand spies who go everywhere and listen to all that is said, by men and women, throughout the country. And if anyone speaks against Count Hulagu, he is arrested and put in prison. And as there is a great temptation to speak against him, because he is always doing some vile, iniquitous, and cruel thing, the people, to guard their safety, have almost stopped talking. They go about almost in silence now.

The running theme of the book is freedom: on a small scale, the sisters’ adventures are set in resistance to the circumscribed lives demanded of the well-behaved little girl; the zoo incident culminates in them liberating the Puma and the Falcon, for whom liberty is sweeter than all else; the two girls liberate a group of wrongfully-imprisoned people from the local jail; and the third act of the book involves first liberating their father and themselves from Count Hulagu’s dungeon, and then liberating Bombardy from the tyranny of Hulagu altogether. This theme is radical in its expression, especially for a children’s book, since Linklater repeatedly suggests that true freedom is more important than strict obedience to the law. Indeed, the law itself comes off pretty badly in this book. One early episode involves the trial of a woman who is wrongly accused (by a policeman) of stealing a pair of silk stockings. When the jury fail to convict –  notwithstanding the heavy prompting of the judge –  the judge sends all twelve to prison. The law here is an ass.

The Wind on the Moon is less concerned with rural Britain than some of the other books on the Carnegie list, but I think it shares some of the same sense of the importance of nature and wildness. The passage about Dinah and Dorinda’s time spent in the forest with the Falcon and the Puma, where ‘they learnt more than Miss Serendip could teach them. They learnt to see things’ is certainly in sympathy with The Little Grey Men. The rejection of law is linked to a sense that it is poorly connected to natural law, as when the children puzzle over how they can possibly explain to the Puma why it’s a problem to kill the local sheep and conclude that, understanding the Puma’s nature, they can’t expect her to behave in any other way.

These elements of the book are interesting, but the real charm of the book is in its wit and inventiveness. The episode in which Dinah and Dorinda convince the judge to change his mind about keeping the jury in prison though an elaborate prank to suggest that an unchanged mind literally stinks was more me the most interesting and enjoyable part of the book. It’s subversive and funny, and also stands out for being one of the few plotlines completely driven by the two sisters themselves. Linklater is a bit too fond of the deus ex machina, and in most of the other major incidents the solution to the problem at hand comes from elsewhere, and is often rather unconnected to Dinah and Dorinda. This is a bit unsatisfying, and I think a more fully worked through novel would have at the least provided some links which demonstrated that the deus ex machine were prompted by some action of the sisters.

Due to its length and Linklater’s tendency to wallow in his own prose from time to time, I suspect this book would not quite stand the test of time as a book for children to read indepedently. As a book read aloud, though, I think it would be enjoyed by all parties (especially if the reader judiciously edited some of the more self-indulgent passages, as my father used to do when reading to me). It’s certainly a new kind of book for the Carnegie Medal – one thing I’d love to gauge when I get onto the historical research for this project is whether someone on the committee actively sought that change, or whether they were just impressed by Linklater’s general standing and/or unable to think of a worthy contender. Intriguing

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 7/10 – I enjoyed this despite its flaws, although interestingly its strengths are not really in plot or characterisation

Plot: 6/10 – Nice episodes, but the whole thing is a bit rambling

Characterisation: 6/10 – This isn’t a highly character-driven book, though I did enjoy Dinah and Dorinda’s sheer exasperation with the baffling criteria for being ‘good’.

Themes: War, tyranny, freedom, humour

Publisher: Macmillan

Illustrator: Nicholas Bentley (I liked the illustrations, incidentally, though I came across a review somewhere which was rather scathing about them)

Author’s nationality/race: White Welsh / Orcadian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

War stops play: a year with no award

Some musings on a year with no award

Mary Poppins Opens the Door: book jacket image
Mary Poppins Opens the Door: first edition jacket

No review this week, as we have reached 1943: the first of three years in which no Carnegie Medal was awarded. It’s pretty easy to guess why the committee struggled to make an award: World War Two was by this point well underway, and the depredations of the Blitz had had a significant effect on British publishing. Paper warehouses and printers were badly affected by the bombing, and the general paper shortage meant that publishers were severely restricted in how many books they could publish. Publishing firms were also hit by the loss of many staff to the armed forces – although children’s publishing was arguably better placed to cope with this since so many of the editors were women. War must also have affected the Library Association and its members, perhaps making the task of finding eligible titles more challenging: a problem compounded by the fact that the Carnegie Committee was not at this point made up of specialist youth librarians (who were mostly women) .

There were, however, books published in 1943, and despite the fact that the Committee recorded the ‘no book was considered suitable’ there are arguably some which might have fitted the bill had there been sufficient interest either in identifying possible titles or in bending the rules about eligibility. Before I proceed on to 1944’s award, then, I thought I’d briefly reflect on what might have been.

The most obvious contender for the prize, in terms of ensuring recognition, is Arthur Ransome’s The Picts and the Martyrs. I suspect this probably would have won by default had it not been for the fact that Ransome had already won the Medal in 1936. While there was no explicit rule against repeat winners, it wasn’t (according to Keith Barker) until 1968 that the rules were rewritten to make it clear that the same author could be honoured twice, and it took until 1980 for this to actually happen. So it’s fair to assume that there was at the very least a reluctance to honour Ransome twice. if so, that reluctance was perhaps solidified by the appeal of The Picts and the Martyrs relative to Pigeon Post. It’s a good book (in my opinion most of the Ransome books – with the exception of Missee Lee and Peter Duck – wouldn’t look out of place as winners).  It returns to some similar ground, though (in all senses) and it’s in some ways a quieter, less dramatic book. It has different qualities to Pigeon Post, but I don’t think it would be easy to make the case that it was so much better than that book that it merited a double award for Ransome so soon after he was honoured.

Another possible contender for the 1943 award was Enid Blyton, who published two books this year: The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage and The Magic Faraway Tree. From a contemporary perspective, Blyton might seem like an unlikely contender for the Carnegie, since she has been anathema to much of the children’s book establishment for a large portion of her career. In the 1940s, however, she had yet to attract the amount of opprobrium which was to be attached to her in later days: reviews from around this time are generally positive if not effusive. A 1941 review of The Babar Story Book in the Observer, for example,  praises  her condensed version of the stories, saying ‘ She has, by doing her work with  taste and skill, rendered a real service to M. de Bunhoff’s historic elephant’ (Lucas, A. (1941, Nov 30). FOR THE CHILDREN. The Observer (1901- 2003) ). The stylistic qualities of Blyton’s writing are out of line with what I’ve seen of the Carnegie list to this point, which has tended towards the fairly high literary; on the other hand we can certainly say her books have stood the test of time, since very many of them are still in print and selling well.

I’ve never read The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage and didn’t get around to reading it for this blog post. I did read The Magic Faraway Tree as a child and did NOT enjoy it, though I can’t remember why. I reread it this week and it created some of the same uneasy feelings that I associate with my childhood reading. I think this is to do with the fact Blyton’s fantasy world is so capricious and unpleasant: the book features a set of children who have discovered a magical tree which is populated by all kinds of strange people and which has access to magical lands, which periodically arrive at the top of the tree, stay for a short while, and then move on. They are often wish fulfilment type lands where you can take whatever you want or do whatever you want, although they are equally likely to be unpleasant lands, such as a land where everyone is angry all the time. As a child, I enjoyed the moral order of Blyton’s work a lot – I LOVED her school stories, in which there is a clear ‘right’ way to behave and any misunderstandings are always straightened out by the end of the book. In The Magic Faraway Tree, there are hints of moral didacticism – for example, there’s a world in which you can get whatever presents you want, as long as you want to give them to other people – but there’s also a lot of punishment which is either randomly delivered or wholly disproportionate. When the Saucepan Man goes into the Land of Toys, for example, believing it to be the Land of Take What You Want, he helps himself to toffees from a shop and is immediately apprehended and thrown in jail. In Blyton’s school stories, this kind of situation would be resolved by some kind of demonstration of his good intentions and his contrition; in this book it is resolved by the children breaking him out of prison and tricking all the pursuing toys into an exhausting and futile chase. I can see how this might be appealing to some readers – I think one thing the Famous Five books do well is convey the capriciousness of adult power and the pleasures of outwitting  those who wield it  – but I find it rather mean spirited and unsettling. It also seems to run counter to the Carnegie criteria, which did stipulate that books should offer children ‘a proper expectation of life’, which seems to have meant good moral values rather than realistic expectations (on which count Blytin might have won). All in all, I don’t think Blyton’s failure to win was a mere oversight, nor am I particularly sorry about this in retrospect.

The Magic Bed-Knob: first edition jacket
The Magic Bed-Knob: first edition jacket

The final two books which could have been contenders this year were Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed-Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons (the first of the two books which were eventually adapted to become Bedknobs and Broomsticks) and P.L. Travers ‘ Mary Poppins Opens the Door. I have read both these books, but in both cases it was a long time agao, and I  didn’t manage to pick up either for a reread. I remember The Magic Bed-Knob as a humorous book with an enjoyable strand of realism – the kind of book which could conceivably have deserved an award – and it’s still in print, so it has stood the test of time. However, had it won the Carnegie committee might have felt that they couldn’t award the Medal to The Borrowers, which (spoiler alert) is to my mind one of the great fantasies of all time. Mary Poppins is another book which has achieved modern classic statement, albeit arguably mostly because of the film. I get confused about which Mary Poppins book is which, but I think Mary Poppins Opens the Door is where things start to get weird(er). Still, reading I Go By Sea, I Go By Land reminded me that P.L. Travers is really a fantastic writer, and with Mary Norton and P.L Travers in the mix I think the Carnegie Committee could probably have awarded the Medal if they’d been inclined to really try. So this does seem a case of ‘war stops play’ rather than a true case of there being no suitable titles at all.

I’ve yet to delve into the Library Association’s records to find out what was actually going on that year. I am curious to see what I’ll find when I do so.

Next time… a book which arguably demonstrates that the charge of weirdness need not have been a barrier to winning the award: The Wind on the Moon.

 

Little Grey Men

1941 offers a rural odyssey with BB’s little grey men.

littlegreymen
The Little Grey Men – first edition jacket

I had a somewhat unplanned summer hiatus from this blog, but as the autumn term beckons I am back in the blogging saddle with the 1942 Carnegie winner, The Little Grey Men by ‘BB’. ‘BB’ was actually Denys Watkins-Pitchford, a Northampton-born naturalist who produced beautiful nature drawings. He also illustrated The Little Grey Men; my copy carries black and white illustrations by him, but is missing the watercolour plates that were in the first edition. (It also replaces his jacket illustration with one by Edward Ardizzone, which I have to say I like a lot more.)

The book focuses on Baldmoney, Sneezewort and Dodder, ‘the last gnomes in England’:

Rather surprisingly, [Baldmoney] was extraordinary like the pictures of gnomes in fairy books, even to the pointed skin hat and long beard. He wore a short coat and waistcoat of mouse-skin with a strip of snake-skin round his middle; moleskin breeches tied in below the knee, but no shoes or stockings. He had no need of these, for gnomes are hairy little folk; in summer time they sometimes dispense with clothes altogether. Their bodies are not naked like ours, but clothed in long hair, and as to their feet, if you had not worn boots of shoes since you were born, you would have no need of them either. He carried a hunting knife in his belt, made of hammered iron, part of an old hinge which he had found in the stream.

However extraordinarily like the pictures of gnomes in fairy books these particular gnomes may be, the book is pretty far from the kind of book that suggests to me. This is definitely not a fairy story, and apart from being very small, the gnomes do not really resemble fairies in terms of supernatural qualities. In fact, they’re a kind of cross between small woodland creatures and rural working men: the charcoal burners in Ransome’s books would definitely get on well with them. As you might expect from Watkins’ Pitchford’s biography, this is intentional: the introduction to the book explicitly tells us that ‘the birds and wild animals are the Little People’, and the book as a whole is clearly very interested in the idea of an enduring country heritage which is embodied in these gnomes who have been there ‘since before Julius Caesar’. So there’s a definite return here to some of the concerns we’ve seen in earlier Carnegie medallists. There’s a much more prominent environment concern, though: there are frequent allusions to the way human beings are impacting on the environment, such as the effect of tarred roads on the stickleback population (the runoff poisons the water, apparently).

There are some quite pleasing details at the beginning about the gnomes and how they live (Dodder has a prosthetic leg which is based around an acorn cup, and they consult the kingfisher on the best material to use to replace the twig which forms the actual leg). Then the main conflict of the plot kicks off: their brother Cloudberry departed some months ago on a journey to find the source of the stream, but never returned. The rest of the novel follows their (successful) quest to find Cloudberry, a quest which takes then away from their sanctuary in the woods and into territory controlled by men. The main drama takes place when they reach a wood controlled by a gamekeeper, the ‘Giant Grum’, who kills all the small creatures who enter his territory and who, they fear, may have killed Cloudberry. This precipitates the strangest part of this book. The gnomes and woodland creatures call on the God Pan to help them kill the Giant Grum, who obliges by providing Dodder with 6 oak leaves which he stuff into the Giant’s gun barrel, causing the gun to explode and kill the Giant (who is of course the gamekeeper).

This incident is… weird. From the point of view of the gnomes and the other woodland creatures, it’s completely justified. The Giant Grum is a wanton killer who they all live in fear of. And from the point of view of the naturalist, the ecological monosystem which the Giant Grum seems to be creating with his policy of ‘kill all life except pheasants’ is also clearly a problem (although the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust claim that pheasant woods are actually quite good for ecological diversity) – I’d be interested to know if this is the common view today). But the sudden murder of one of the only human characters in the book is a bit startling, coming in the middle of a fairly gentle children’s books, and it’s made more startling by the way Giant Grum is presented immediately beforehand:

Giant Grum had no appetite for breakfast, and his wife was worried. All night he had tossed and turned in his sleep, muttering, groaning. His wife wanted him to stay in bed.

‘You have the flu, I’m sure; lie still and let me send for the doctor.’

But he would not. ‘No, the fresh air will do me good; I must go down to the pens. It’s fresh air I want. Perhaps this hot weather has got me down a bit.’

[…] He strode along with his dog at his heel. Two hundred yards from the house was a clearing and here the pheasant pens were ranged row on row. At intervals were poles from which were suspended the bodies of crows, jays, and magpies, who came to rob him of his precious chicks. As soon as he came within sight of the clearing he stopped short. Something was wrong, not a pheasant was to be seen! Usually they came running to him like chickens to be fed, but the place was deserted.

Giant Grum is clearly not just a giant, but a perfectly ordinary man who is doing his work conscientiously. This section is so sympathetic that I wonder whether Watkins-Pitchford doesn’t want us to direct our anger elsewhere, but if this is the case then the book as a whole fails. The gamekeeper, after all, is just an employee who is maintaining a pheasant wood for the benefit of his wealthy employers. We briefly meet these employers later on, but they are infinitely more sympathetic than Giant Grum. Indeed, insofar as there is a focalising child character it is the small son of the landowner, who is conveniently also afraid of the gamekeeper and relieved to learn he has gone away for a long holiday from which he is not expected to return. So we’re not encouraged to lay the sins of Giant Grum at his employers’ doors where, presumably, they really belong.

These inconsistencies in tone are particularly interesting if you read this book against its historical context. The idea of a violent struggle for access to the land makes sense when read against the birth of the Ramblers Association, notably the mass trespass of Kinder Scout only a decade before this book was published. The title of the first chapter in the game wood certainly seems to situate the book within this context: it’s called ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted!’ But that struggle was closely connected with issues of class and the question of whether landowners have a right to fence off land which is part of the common heritage of the people, so if Watkins-Pitchford was intentionally alluding to that it would make more sense for the actual landowners to come across in a more unsympathetic fashion. If anyone knows more about where he stood in relation to this movement I’d be most pleased to hear about it.

The other interesting historical context for this book is, of course, the war. It’s only briefly mentioned, but the very forceful return to a narrative which intensely treasures the wild spaces of Britain I think partly reflects the sense of the country as a precious space which is to be defended. Owen Dudley Smith sees the violence of the gamekeeper’s death as reflective of the war, but I’m not really convinced by that reading.

This is one of those books where my adult reader and my child reader don’t really align. As an adult, I find this book fascinating, because it’s so clearly engaging with lots of ideas about land and heritage and rural tradition. But I did actually read this book as a child, and I did not like it at all. I remember being quite unsettled by it, in fact – I don’t remember Giant Grum’s death, but it may have been this that bothered me. I think, though, that it was more that the presence of gnomes made me thing I was going to get a more fantasy oriented book, and in fact it’s much more interested in nature and fishing and so on. It’s certainly quite a slow book by modern standards, and I suspect for this reason it would be less engaging to many contemporary children. However, it’s still in print, so someone is buying it!

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 7/10 – I think this is a better book than We Couldn’t Leave Dinah, but I liked it less.

Plot: 8/10

Characterisation: 7/10

Themes: Countryside, heritage, land, fantasy

Publisher: Eyre and Spottiswood

Illustrator: Watkins-Pitchford

Author’s nationality/race: White English

 

 

 

 

 

We Couldn’t Leave Dinah

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

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