The Nancy Drew Mysteries by Carolyn Keene (Facebook group reading challenge)

Standard

I was an ardent reader of the Nancy Drew books from about 1983 to 1987, and have just been revisiting them for a Facebook group reading challenge.  I found a cheap three-in-one on Amazon, but was confused by the first two, The Secret of the Old Clock and The Bungalow Mystery, as they didn’t feature Nancy’s two friends, George Fayne and Bess Marvin.  It transpired that those were two of the first four books, and that George and Bess hadn’t appeared until the fifth book.  The third one (actually the 43rd in the series), The Mystery of the 99 Steps, which did feature George and Bess, was one I read as a kid, and it was amazing how it all came back to me!

I hadn’t realised how complex the history of the series was.  As a kid in the ’80s, I’d just go into W H Smith or wherever and choose a book off the shelves.  Each mystery was self-contained, and everyone stayed the same age, so it didn’t really matter whether you read them in order or not.  I had no idea that the series dated right back to 1930, although it didn’t appear in the UK until the early 1970s, and I certainly had no idea that “Carolyn Keene” was a syndicate, not an actual person.

And I don’t remember being aware that “The Nancy Drew Files” appeared as a spin-off series in 1986.  I may have read a few of those books, as they apparently heavily featured chloroform and I remember that Nancy seemed to do a lot of “blacking out”, but they also, so Wikipedia informs me, did away with Burt Eddleton and Dave Evans, George and Bess’s boyfriends, and I definitely remember them featuring a lot, along with Nancy’s boyfriend, Ned Nickerson.   I loved the fact that Bess, the “plump” girl, not only got to be involved in the cool detective gang but also got to have a nice boyfriend – such a contrast to other “plump” girls in children’s books, such as Alma Pudden, who were basically just figures of fun.

The stories are completely bonkers, of course!  Why on earth would anyone leave their last will and testament in a safety deposit box taken out under an assumed name, and leave the details of the name and location in a miniature notebook hidden inside the back of an old clock?  Would it really be so easy to kidnap an heiress’s new guardian and impersonate him in order to steal all her money – surely someone would have accompanied a young girl to make sure that everything was OK?  Not to mention one of France’s leading financiers believing that an alchemist had found a way to turn everything into gold, and Nancy Drew and her dad somehow getting involved in it all because of a neighbour who remembered falling down some steps at a chateau as a child.

But it’s all good fun!   And the idea of a girl detective must have been pretty groundbreaking in 1930.  In the many Enid Blyton mystery/detective/adventure books I read, written much later, there were mixed gender gangs, but it wasn’t unusual for the boys to go off and do the dangerous stuff, leaving the girls behind.  And Nancy was so cool, driving around everywhere in her “convertible”.  OK, the Five Find-Outers et al were much too young to drive, but even in, say, some of the Lorna Hill books, where the main characters were in their late teens or early 20s, no-one had their own car.

A great deal of debate apparently now rages about Nancy   Not so much in the UK, where she isn’t such a cultural icon – although I was amused to hear Charity Dingle in Emmerdale mention her recently – but certainly in the US.  Does she represent feminism?  Or does she symbolise conservative Middle America, living in well-to-do River Heights?  There are even Nancy Drew conferences, and women from Hillary Clinton to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg have cited her as an influence.  Wow!  I can’t say that I ever thought about the books that deeply – I wasn’t very old when I read them, to be fair –  but I did love all the adventures that Nancy had.  And, of course, you knew that she’d always solve the mysteries in the end.

There was even a TV series about her and The Hardy Boys, in America, in the mid-1970s – starring Pamela Sue Martin, in her pre-Fallon Carrington Colby days, and Parker Stevenson, in his pre-Billy Hazard days.  I didn’t know any of this: I’ve had a wonderful “Wiki walk” this morning!  I don’t think it ever made it over here, though.  I remember there being a film a few years back, but it didn’t sound very good and I didn’t bother seeing it.  But I did love those books, back in the day!  It’s been fun revisiting them.

The Evangelical Books by Elinor M Brent-Dyer

Standard

I bought this three-in-one – Nesta Steps Out, Beechy of the Harbour School and Leader in Spite of Herself – for Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) completeness: I am *not* in the habit of reading any sort of evangelical books, and, having read Beechy before and found it pretty horrendous, I didn’t have high hopes of the other two books.  However, they really weren’t bad at all, and even Beechy wasn’t quite as bad as I remembered.

For the most part, they were, albeit very short, fairly standard EBD school stories – everyone looking trig and trim, accidents on expeditions, rushing around in the mornings, overly efficient matrons, et al.  It felt as if the preachy religious bits had just been shoehorned in to appeal to the Sunday School prize market, rather like Diana Barry shoehorning a reference to the Rollins Reliable Baking Powder Company into Anne Shirley’s “Averil’s Atonement” 🙂 .

Like Anne’s story, these would have been rather better with the shoehorned-in bits taken out, and I suspect that EBD may well have preferred them that way, but maybe they serve as a useful reminder that, unlike some of their heroines, most of our favourite Girls’ Own authors weren’t from wealthy families, and were writing books to pay their bills.  If that meant shoving in a few preachy comments, or, indeed, accepting that the books were going to be abridged when republished, then that was what they had to do.  Unlike fictional characters, most people do not get swept off their feet by rich doctors or conveniently inherit fortunes from hitherto unmentioned godparents or great-uncles/aunts!

The problem with Beechy of the Harbour School is that the shoehorning goes way overboard.  The basic plotline is a fairly standard story, about a girl, Beechy, whose mother has recently died, starting a new school and inadvertently making an enemy of another girl, Olive.  There’s a thunderstorm, Beechy is frightened, and Olive makes fun of her.  This is followed by what looks like it’s going to be a classic EBD scene – a showdown in which Olive bursts into tears in the Head’s study.  But then the Head gives Olive a lecture on how “your sin against Beechy is far less grievous than your sin against God … you have been dishonouring Christ throughout the term”.  On top of that, Beechy then informs the Head that “If only I had had the courage to tell you all … that I had become a Christian … I ought to have been praying … Next term, I mean to start as I intend to go on, and let everybody know that I belong to Jesus.  I don’t think I’ll ever be so afraid in a storm again”.

Er, yes.  The Head telling Olive to be a bit nicer, and Beechy being embarrassed for making such a fuss, would have done fine!  And been considerably more convincing.

In Nesta Steps Out, we’ve got a girl with a very bad temper.  Unlike Margot Maynard of Chalet School fame, she’s determined to try to control it … rather like Darrell Rivers in Malory Towers.  Also like Darrell, she’s got a bosom buddy called Sally – which is unusual for EBD, who usually prefers gangs to bosom buddies.  And there’s a nasty teacher, who falls into a river … but it turns out that she’s not that nasty, just in a bad mood because she’s being obliged to give up her job to go and keep house for a widowed brother.  Nesta does try to keep her temper, and it only gets a bit preachy, with various references to praying for help.  So this one isn’t bad.

Leader in Spite of Herself gets off to a very preachy start, with one girl bursting into tears for very little reason, like a heroine of a 19th century American religious novel, and a prefect lecturing two girls bitching about a classmate on how all their words were offered up to God so they should be more careful about what they said.  However, it does get better.  Standard plot, nasty new girl doesn’t fit in, classmates dislike her but two of them then decide to make an effort with her, encouraged by our “leader” Rosemary, one of the prefects, and all’s well that ends well.

Replace the preachy bits with simple references to trying to be nice to other people, and it would have been quite a good book.  And that’s how I felt about all of them.  But, whilst I may be wrong, I do get the feeling that, unlike the likes of Martha Finley and Susan Warner, EBD herself would probably have preferred the books to be like her other school stories, with people seeing the errors of their ways without all the overt preaching stuff.  However, these books were presumably commissioned, and, as I said, they’re an important reminder that our favourite authors were living in the real world and sometimes had to play to the market rather than just their own personal choices.

Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert

Standard

  (Facebook group reading challenge.)  OK, we’ve got a black, Jewish, bisexual heroine (Little/Suzette), her white, Jewish, straight, bipolar stepbrother (Lion, short for Lionel), her half-black, half-Korean, hearing-impaired male admirer (Emil), her lesbian best friend (DeeDee), the pansexual Latina girl whom both Little and Lion fancy and who’s been disowned by her religious mother for having an abortion (Rafaela), and the girl with whom Suzette had a secret relationship at a posh (lacrosse-playing) boarding school in Massachusetts (Iris).  And throw in a bit of Beverly Hills 90210: we’re in an upmarket part of Los Angeles, where schoolkids have swimming pools at their homes and drive around in their own cars.

Incidentally, it’d been years since I’d read a modern American teenage book: I read all the Judy Blumes and Paula Danzigers many moons ago, but it *was* many moons ago!

My initial reaction was that the author’s main aim was, in a very well-intentioned way, to make the cast as diverse as possible, and that the plot was going to be secondary to that; but, to be fair, it wasn’t, and the main characters were well-drawn.  However, it kept rather confusingly jumping about between the past and the present, and I could have done without it using so many swear words in the narrative (which stops seeming cool when you’re about 12).  The Suzette storyline generally, although far from entirely, worked quite well, though.  A lot of it was about the anxieties that teenagers experience about how others will react to them being “different” to the majority – whether that’s ethnicity, religion, sexuality, disability, having a mental health condition, or anything else, and especially when it’s more than one of those things.  And just *being* a teenager is complicated.

The Lionel storyline was more problematic.  It was great to see an author tackling the issue of mental health conditions in young people, and also saying straight out that the side effects of the tablets can end up making you feel worse than you did to start with.  However, I don’t think it was handled too well.  First of all, Suzette was sent away to boarding school so she wouldn’t have to cope with Lionel’s illness, and then he came off his tablets and told her but not their parents, so she was stressed out and feeling guilty and didn’t know what to do.  So the way it came across was that Lionel’s medical condition was causing huge problems for Suzette.  This book’s aimed at secondary school kids.  It’s not giving a very helpful message to young readers who may have mental health condition themselves.

I very much appreciated the fact that the author didn’t take the Everyone’s A Racist/Homophobe culture war approach that you come across so often these days, and which is neither true nor helpful, and also the way that she steered well away from tropes.  A lot of books show stepfamilies as having problems, but everyone in this family got on brilliantly.  And a lot of books show teenagers clashing with their parents, but these parents were lovely.  And there was never any concern that they’d react badly to Suzette being bisexual: she knew they’d be fine with it.  A posh Massachusetts boarding school might well have been shown as being full of girls whose families all belonged to country clubs which only admitted WASPs.  It wasn’t.  And it didn’t have a culture of homophobia either.  And some authors would have said that Suzette’s mother had been denied opportunities in life because she was black.  Not at all: she was a successful woman with a degree from Wellesley.

What we did get, and which was very well-written, was the uncertainties and anxieties of being part of a minority group.  In Suzette’s case, three minority groups.  Not everyone’s prejudiced against any minority group, but, sadly and indisputably, some people are, and it’s not always obvious who they are.  If a security guard was watching her in a shop, was that because it was his job to watch everyone, or is it because she was black?  If someone looked at the Star of David on her necklace, was it because they were anti-Semitic, because they thought it was weird that a black girl was wearing a Jewish symbol, or just because they thought it was a pretty necklace and they were admiring it?   And what about Lionel – how were people going to react to finding out that he was bipolar, having just been told that he was off school because he was “sick”?  Would they treat him differently?

What was she supposed to do when someone said something like “Black people aren’t supposed to be good at swimming”.  Pull them up on it or ignore it?  That was an interesting scene.  What do you do when someone says something like that about a minority group?  If you do pull them up on it, are they going to accept that it wasn’t an appropriate thing to say, or are they going to tell you that you’re over-reacting and they didn’t mean anything by it, or that it was a joke and you’ve got no sense of humour, or that you don’t understand English (or American, in this case) irony?

But the main issues were with Suzette herself.  There was a lot of talk about how in Los Angeles it was OK to be yourself, whoever you were, but Suzette hadn’t told people that she was bisexual … although that was because she wasn’t 100% sure herself.  At school, she hadn’t told anyone that she was Jewish, even though she was sure about that. (Lionel and his father were always Jewish: Suzette and her mother converted.)

And we learned that she and Iris had kept their relationship secret, but that a group of other girls had found them together, a homophobic minority of people had had a go at them and that Iris (for unknown reasons) gave them the impression that she’d taken advantage whilst Suzette was drunk, and that Suzette let everyone believe this, leaving all the other girls to think that Iris was some sort of sex predator.  That was problematic.  Suzette was the heroine, and presented sympathetically.  But the way she’d treated Iris was appalling, and neither the character nor the authorial voice seemed to think that she should be apologising for it, instead of thinking that it was all about her and spending her summer holidays trying to work out whether she preferred Emil, whom she’d been dating, or Rafaela.  Even her mum just said that she was sure Iris’d forgive her, rather than pointing out it wasn’t really very nice to let someone get a reputation for being a sex pest just because you didn’t want to tell people that you were bisexual.

The other thing about Suzette that didn’t work was her religion. That was the one “identity” that felt as if it was put in to tick a box – and that was a shame.  The specific issues faced by “Jews of colour” were covered in the local press here during the Black Lives Matter protests last year: several people spoke about problems they’d faced because people tend to have an image of a Jewish person as being white, and I don’t know why the author chose to create a black Jewish character but then write so unconvincingly about the religious side of her character.  We were told early on that she was very religious and that Judaism was very important to her, whereas Lionel wasn’t really bothered about it, but not once did we not once see her attending a service or marking a religious festival, or having any sort of issue with the fact that none of her three potential partners shared her religion.  I could have handled that, but we also saw her turning up at a picnic with prosciutto and cheese – on challah bread! – and then eating grilled shrimp!   What on earth?

As for Lionel, he said he’d start talking his tablets again, and the book concluded by saying that that meant that everything’d be OK.  And Suzette, even though she was really keen on Emil, decided to go back to the boarding school.  Well, I hope that she told everyone that they’d got it wrong about Iris!

I quite enjoyed reading an American teenage novel for the first time in 30-odd years.  I loved those Judy Blume books!

 

Covid Christmas Parade by Milan Kumar

Standard

  This is lovely: it’s a picture book which was written and self-published by 8-year-old Milan Kumar from Bolton, with proceeds going to the National Literacy Trust.  Milan wrote it after completing a reading challenge, which was to read 50 books during the first lockdown, and being praised by the Duchess of Cornwall.  At a time when many adults seem more interested in sniping and points-scoring than in standing together and supporting others, it’s wonderful that a young lad’s done something like this.

I bought it as a way of making a donation to a good cause, and also recognising the efforts of a local boy, but I did really enjoy reading it.  It’s a short picture book aimed at young kids, which isn’t the sort of thing I usually read these days 🙂 , but it’s very sweet.  It’s a story about a little boy who’s sad that Christmas seems to have been cancelled by the virus and the necessary restrictions, but realises that, yes, it’s possible for one ordinary person to do something to bring about good in their community, and organises a drive-through (yes, hooray, spelt “drive-through” rather than “drive-thru”!) parade.  Everyone who takes part drives through the town, and leaves presents outside other people’s homes, and there are lots of big smiles and everyone’s happy 🙂 .

This is a horrible time, but there are heartwarming stories out there, and both the story in the book and the story of the book are amongst them.  On a difficult day, after seeing the very distressing pictures of the damage done to the US Capitol building, this made me smile.

 

The Chalet School in Guernsey by Katherine Bruce

Standard

Pity the Coronation Street scriptwriters, who’ve tried so hard to reflect the reality of Covid-era Britain but, not having crystal balls, couldn’t foresee the imposition of Lockdown Two and Tier bloody Three.   And so the episodes we’re seeing now, filmed three months in advance, are sadly a long way removed from what’s actually happening.  Now pity, a million times more, Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD), who moved the Chalet School and Jem Russell’s Sanatorium from post-Anschluss Austria to the safety of Guernsey, only for the Nazis to occupy the Channel Islands almost as soon as she’d put down her pen.

The need to get the School and the San over to the British mainland in the next book meant that EBD didn’t have much chance to write about their time in Guernsey, and this new “fill-in” … well, fills that in.  It includes quite a lot of detail about life and restrictions in the early part of the war, which is fascinating from a social history viewpoint.  The Armada editions of the wartime books, the ones in print when I was a kid, annoyingly had a lot of the detail specific to wartime cut out of them.  It’s good to have so much included here.  Our favourite characters may be fictional, but they live(d) in a real place, in a real time.

Fill-in authors do, obviously, have to work with what EBD wrote.  And, as much as I love the wartime books – The Chalet School in Exile really is a very special piece of writing – , it does have to be said that some of what’s in them is a bit bonkers.  Karen, Anna, Frau Mieders and her sister, Herr Laubach, and Emmie and Johanna Linders all somehow escape from/”get themselves smuggled out of” the Third Reich, and a whole gang of people, two of whom have escaped from a concentration camp, somehow all end up meeting up in Bordeaux.  Too many escape stories told in detail would have just been too unconvincing, but I’m delighted that the one we get here is Karen’s … even though I maintain that Karen wasn’t actually a Pfeifen but a family friend (yes, I know that everyone else thinks she was a Pfeifen), and that Anna was Marie’s cousin rather than, as stated here, Marie’s sister (but the books are rather unclear on this).  I’d love to know just how EBD thought they all managed to escape, and indeed to enter the British Isles without the necessary visas, but never mind!

A gripe.  It traumatises me when people use “England” instead of “Britain” or “the UK”, and “Russia” instead of “the Soviet Union”.  I am a pedantic historian.   I always pick up on that.  Moan over!

Then, getting back to what EBD wrote, there’s the rather unlikely coincidence of Bob Maynard just happening to have a friend who just happens to have an enormous house to let, which just happens to be close to where Paul Ozanne’s just got a new job.  But, again, never mind!    Ernest Howell’s appearance at the School is one of the scenes which overlaps with The Chalet School Goes To It/The Chalet School At War; but there aren’t many of them, and it wouldn’t have made sense had that one not been included.

It’s nearly all original stuff, other than that.  Some things which never quite get explained by EBD are explained here, which Chalet School fans will enjoy –  notably Rosalie Dene’s job change and Evvy Lannis’s comings and goings.  It’s also great to see a positive portrayal of Marilyn Evans, who’s vilified in the “canon” books without ever actually appearing.  I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Marilyn, the Head Girl who put her school work ahead of the vast array of duties which the Chalet School expects from its prefects.  She was actually at the school to get an education and some qualifications!  She appears in this book as a new girl, and her hard work is actually appreciated at this point.

As much as I love the books, I do get quite frustrated by the attitude towards Marilyn, and the attitude in the wartime books and immediate post-war books towards education, qualifications and university entrance in general.  They don’t say anything very positive about women’s place in life, and that ties in with the very strange scene which we see at the beginning of the The Chalet School in Exile, in which it’s Jem Russell, rather than Madge Russell, who turns up at a staff meeting to say that the School’s going to be moving to the Sonnalpe, and Jem who makes all the decisions about moving to Guernsey.

Until then, Jem hasn’t really got involved in the running of the School.  Why would he?  He’s got more than enough to do with the San.  And he respects the fact that it’s Madge’s school.  Then, later on, Gay Lambert’s brother writes to Jem, rather than to Madge.   And Jack Maynard orders Miss Bubb about, and in front of a pupil to boot!   Miss Bubb’s the acting headmistress, and he’s only the owner’s brother-in-law.  It’s rather odd, in a series which starts with a strong young woman making her own choices and decisions, and shows women managing perfectly well to run a school without any male input.

Anyway.   In this book, Jem and Jack don’t deliberately take over, but we see Hilda Annersley coming to speak to Madge about leaving Guernsey, only to find that Madge is out … and talking it through with Jem and Jack, who both just happen to be around, instead.  It ties in with what EBD wrote, but I do wish EBD had let Madge be the one to decide – or, at least, Madge and Jem jointly, given that the San was affected too and they obviously had to move together.  But, hooray, in this book, Madge does go to the staff meeting at which all the details are discussed.

Before then, there’s a wonderful original, and wonderfully original, chapter in which we see some of the older girls taking part in a rehearsal/role play scenario of what might happen in the event of an invasion.  It’s based on real life events, and it’s fascinating –  a real taste of wartime Guernsey, and a reminder of how frightening those times were.

And there’s also a lot about Melanie Kerdec, a character who appears in the wartime books without it ever being made clear whether or not she’s the same Melanie Kerdec who was part of “The Mystic M” in The New Chalet School.  Presumably she was, but we’re never told.  Without wanting to post a lot of spoilers, in case anyone’s reading my waffle – is anyone reading my waffle?! – and is getting the book as a Christmas present, Melanie is a prominent character in this, in a classic “troublesome new girl eventually settles in and decides the school is great” storyline.

This is the second wartime fill-in in a row, and it’s really interesting to see our old friends – the characters are our friends, aren’t they 🙂 ? – against the background of such a difficult time, and in a setting which is firmly rooted in a particular time.  We know what lay ahead.  EBD didn’t.  And the characters didn’t.  What did EBD have planned for the Chalet School in Guernsey?  We’ll never know, and it’s sad that she never got the chance to write it, but maybe this was some of it.  And any Chalet School fill-in is always a good comfort read, and that’s something which I think we could all do with at the moment.

 

Ballet for Drina by Jean Estoril

Standard

This is my first Drina book: I read a lot of ballet books as a kid, but these somehow passed me by.  Then I found this one going cheap the other week, and decided to give it a go.  It’s fairly formulaic, and the big secret’s obvious from very early on, but it’s a well-written children’s book and I enjoyed it.

Lorna Hill’s dancers are usually very nice, and Noel Streatfeild’s are usually very annoying: Drina is more of a Lorna Hill type, and is very appealing.  The one thing that slightly annoys me is that the author’s rather sarcastic about other ballet books and their ridiculous ballet teachers.  OK, to be fair, has anyone ever met anyone who talks like Madame Wakulski-Viret?!   But this is a very standard ballet book too.  Drina has a slightly exotic background, family don’t want her dance for unrevealed mysterious reasons, she misses out on a show due to sudden illness, circumstances prevent her from having more lessons but she’s determined to become a dancer anyway, she gets her chance when someone else gets injured at the last minute, the big secret is revealed, and you know that she’s going to become a prima ballerina.  Fairly clichéd ballet book stuff, but it *is* well-written.  And all the characters are very believable.

I did actually have ballet/dance lessons for a while.  I was never going to be Veronica Weston or Posy Fossil, but I was genuinely quite enthusiastic to start off with.  Unfortunately, useless fat kids like me were made to stand at the back of the class, and weren’t allowed to do anything other than chanting “Good toes, naughty toes” whilst sitting on the floor and waggling their toes, and doing a few basic movements whilst walking in a straight line.  It was very demoralising – and it was really rather mean of the teacher to treat hopeful little kids like that.  She could at least have let us have a go at doing something else!  I gave up after a year or so.  But I still liked the books!

I think the main reason that useless fat kids were only allowed to walk in a straight line was so that they didn’t take up too much of the hall.  This left plenty of room for the favoured kids to do the polka.  I desperately wanted to be allowed to do the polka.  I can still hear the teacher chanting “Hop, polka, drop”.  I practised it on my own.  Assiduously.  I really, really wanted to whirl around the room as if I were in a mid 19th century ballroom.  No.  I was never allowed out of that back row.

Not that I’m bitter about it or anything.  Much.  I mean, she could at least have let us try.  Our mums and dads were actually paying the same for the lessons as those of the favoured polka cohort.  Er, as I said, not that I’m bitter or anything … 😉 .

Things like this did not happen to people in books.  OK, Caroline Scott went to the Wells and didn’t do very well there, but then she was swept off her feet by a handsome Spaniard and became a famous Spanish dancer instead, which was way better than doing the polka.

Having said which, this was after she’d magically “lost her puppy fat” when she was about 14.  I waited hopefully for this to happen to me.  I’m still waiting …

Jenny, Drina’s best friend, is also a fat girl and is also useless at ballet, but she’s the one who first introduces Drina to ballet classes.  She’s lovely – so nice to see a positive portrayal of a “plump” girl – and very believable.  All the characters are believable: there are the inevitable nasty girls who are up themselves and think they’re much better dancers than they are, but there’s no-one completely OTT.  The only thing that stretches the imagination is the idea that Drina, an orphan who lives with her maternal grandparents, seems to know next to nothing about her mother and father.  But that’s fairly mild compared to some of the stuff that goes on in ballet books!

So, all in all, this is pretty good, as a children’s ballet book!

 

 

 

Star by Star by Sheena Wilkinson (Facebook group reading challenge)

Standard

I read this book because the blurb said that it was “a bold tale of suffragettes”; but it was actually more about the Spanish flu.  Strangely few books cover the Spanish flu, and, under the present circumstances, it was particularly interesting to read one that did.  The women’s suffrage movement did come into it, though, as did the granting of universal male suffrage, the mental health impact of the First World War, and the complex political situation in Northern Ireland.  As one of the characters said, it was an awful lot for everyone to try to process at once – the war, the Spanish flu, the general election so soon after the Armistice, it being the first time that all men and any women could vote, and the issue of Irish independence.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character in a book say that before, and it was a very, very good point.

This is 180 page book for children, so obviously it didn’t go into the depths than an adult book on the same subjects would, but it packed a lot in, and all in quite a quirky way, with Our Heroine keeping imagining that she was at the centre of big dramas and playing out scenarios in her head.  She was about 16.  I still do that now!

This was late 1918 – the Armistice was announced towards the end of the book – and our heroine Stella was moving from Manchester to live at her auntie’s boarding house in a seaside resort in Ulster, following the death of her mother from the Spanish flu.  Very impressed that the book had a Manchester connection 🙂 .  Suffragette City!   I do love reminding people, for the millionth time, that I went to the same school as the Pankhurst sisters.  Who apparently didn’t like the place very much, but the school doesn’t tell pupils that!

Anyway, back to the book.  She’d lived in “Eupatoria Street”.  I wonder if that’s near Inkerman Street and Balaclava Terrace 🙂 . We learnt that she was illegitimate and that that was why her mother had left home, and that her mother had been very involved with the suffragette movement.  She was very keen on the idea of women’s rights, but, although we saw her accompanying her late mother’s best friend to the polling station on the day of the 1918 election, there wasn’t much active politics going on …. but then there wasn’t anyway, because campaigning had been suspended due to the war.

Another of the people staying at the boarding house was a soldier who’d been invalided out of the Army and was struggling to cope psychologically – and that again was something which so many books about the First World War don’t cover, and it was good to see that as a major theme here.  The complex political situation in the north of Ireland was also a central theme, with opposing views expressed by different characters.  If it hadn’t been for the House of Lords, the whole of Ireland would have had Home Rule in Gladstone’s time and a lot of bloodshed would probably have been avoided, but you can’t rewrite history.

However, it was really the Spanish flu pandemic that dominated events. Or maybe that’s just how it seemed to me, and I’d have felt differently had I been reading the book a year ago.  I usually get annoyed when people talk about historical events in the context of current events, but it’s impossible to read about the Spanish flu pandemic at the moment and not look at it in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.  We think things are bad now, but at least we haven’t got healthy people suddenly taking ill in the street and dying within hours, funeral parlours struggling to cope, homes of infected people being viewed by frightened neighbours as houses of contagion, and little in the way of effective treatment for those worst affected.  The death toll was just horrendous, and this in a world already reeling from all the deaths and long-term injuries resulting from the war.

Despite all the serious subjects, there was quite a light touch to it, told in the first person by a teenage girl who, as you do at that age, took herself very seriously!   As I said, it’s a children’s book, not an adult book, but, as a children’s book, it was very good, and I would have loved to have had something like this to read when I was in the intended reading age group.

 

The Bettany Twins and the Chalet School by Helen Barber

Standard

OK, this really wasn’t what I was expecting!   I don’t want to give the game away for anyone who’s got this book but hasn’t read it yet (I never know whether anyone actually reads anything I write or not 🙂 ), but let’s just say that it involves a wartime spy story about an Indian jewellery box and a Nazi plot, in which are embroiled both Dick Bettany’s new house in Devon and the Armishire poacher once encountered by Daisy Venables and her two best pals.  Rather more Enid Blyton than Elinor M Brent-Dyer.  However, as the author points out, the “canon” books also include spy stories – Gertrud Beck for one and the Chart of Erisay for another – and strange adventures (notably the one where a kidnapping drug gang give Val Gardiner rich creamy milk and pay for her train ticket, and not forgetting Professor Richardson’s spaceship).  And it means that we get to see Madge being the heroine of a dramatic car chase through the countryside.  I love Madge, so I particularly enjoyed that bit.

If you were expecting Sales, Christmas plays, showdowns in the study, prefects’ meetings and tea parties at Joey’s, though, you’re going to be out of luck – and, given that people pay the premium prices for the “fill-in” books because they want to read about the Chalet School, some readers may have issues with that.  But there’s school stuff in there too, we get to see plenty of the Bettany and Russell families (and not too much of the Maynards, which makes a pleasant change), and we get to see quite a bit of interaction between the School and the locals, something which most people love about the Tyrol books and bemoan the lack of in the British and Swiss books.  This isn’t one which I’ll read over and over again, but I did quite enjoy it.

I love the family scenes in The Chalet School in Exile and Bride Leads the Chalet School, and am always sorry that we don’t see more of the Russell and Bettany boys during the course of the series.  I was disappointed that David Russell, for whom I’ve got a soft spot, didn’t feature in this, but, as the title makes clear, it’s mostly about the three sets of Bettany twins – Madge and Dick, Peggy and Rix, and Maurice and Maeve.  People on fan fora/fan groups often say that it’d be interesting to see more about how the Bettany family got on when two families suddenly became one – Madge, Dick and the two youngest children, who’d lived as a family unit in India, and the four eldest children, who’d been brought up by Madge and Jem alongside the Russell and Venables children.  So I think this was a great idea for a fill-in book.

As we – i.e. Chalet School fans –  know, there’s a bit of a muddle over the Bettanys’ return from India.  The three short “retrospectives”, Tom, Rosalie and Mystery, seem to forget that there’s a war on, and so we get Dick, Mollie, Maeve and Maurice sailing from India to Britain in wartime, which seems very odd, and then there’s also a mention of them spending time in Australia, which doesn’t seem to fit with anything else.  So Helen Barber did face quite a challenge in making sense of it, and explained it by saying that Dick was involved in secret war work which necessitated his return home.

I thought that that was a good idea, but the spy/mystery/adventure story itself really is very far-fetched, and, as I said, seems to belong far more to an Enid Blyton series than to the Chalet School.  Also, we see quite a few characters who are Helen Barber’s own creations from her Taverton books, rather than being the old Chalet School friends for whom most readers are probably looking.  But the school scenes and the family scenes do work very well, and it’s nice to see Miss Wilson in her role as brevet auntie as well as her role as headmistress.

The characters are all very well-portrayed, too.  Maeve and Maurice are only seven at this point, and the Chalet School books don’t include many school scenes with such young children – apart from the excruciating ones in which Robin Humphries is treated like a toddler, and, even with those, we don’t see things from Robin’s own viewpoint.  We do with Maeve in this book, and Helen Barber manages that very well.

All in all, this wasn’t what I was expecting, but it’s a fair point that the Chalet School books do sometimes veer off into spy stories, adventure stories, etc … and I did love the idea of Madge whizzing round country lanes in pursuit of a Nazi spy who’d got Maeve and a Welsh harp in the back of his van.  We also hear that Madge has recently been appointed secretary of the local WI.  I love the description of Madge in the later books, sounding a bit like Audrey and Marjory from To The Manor Born, involved on loads of committees, and always wish we’d seen some of that during the war years, as I’m sure Madge would very much have wanted to Do Her Bit.  Go Madge!   If you were looking for a classic Chalet School story, this isn’t one.  But, if you want a general GO book to read, then this isn’t a bad one at all.

Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder … by Christine Woodside

Standard

Manchester Histories recently held a “DigiFest” to mark the 50th anniversary of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act.  I thought that the anniversary would attract a lot of attention nationwide, given what an important landmark it was in terms of disability rights; but it seems to have been pretty much forgotten, which is rather a shame.  I’m mentioning it here because I think that Mary Ingalls was the first book character (not “fictional character”, as, obviously, she was a real person) with a disability whom I came across who was realistically portrayed.  She didn’t make a miraculous recovery, like Clara Sesemann in Heidi, and she didn’t just suddenly die for no apparent reason, like Rosamund Sefton in Mary-Lou of the Chalet School.  She got on with her life as best she could, a much-loved member of a family and a community.  At the same time, the loss of her sight meant significant and difficult changes for her, her parents and her sisters.

In the books, Laura takes a teaching job at the age of 15, and the entire family scrimp and save, so that they can send Mary to college.  In reality, Mary’s education was state-funded.  It’s that sort of thing which people who write academic works about Laura (I’m so glad that this book – “Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books”, to give it its full name!  – refers to “Laura”, not to “Wilder”, because surely everyone thinks of her as “Laura”) pick up on when arguing that the books express libertarian ideas and ideals.  It’s fascinating how much theorising about the Little House books goes on, and how they’ve become caught up in debates about the frontier theory and ideas of American history, about what America stands for, in culture wars, and even in politics.  To some extent, this happens with all well-known books – people apparently use Anne Blythe, nee Shirley,’s comments about how she doesn’t write any more now that she’s got kids as an argument against women’s lib –  but there aren’t too many parallels for the way that people go on about Ronald Reagan apparently being a fan of Laura’s books, or worry about what Laura would have thought of Donald Trump.

For all the talk about political messages, the early books, in particular, are aimed at very young children.  I read the whole series when I was about 7, and, if there were political messages in them, I didn’t get them, any more than I got the religious messages in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or even the much less subtle ones in Little Women.  I was genuinely impressed by the much-discussed epiphany scene in Little Town of the Prairie, but only because I took it to mean that all American schoolkids knew the entire Declaration of Independence off by heart.  But, yes, reading the books now, I can see what the academics who make these arguments are getting at.

I don’t think that this book made a particularly strong argument for Laura’s books as an expression of libertarianism, though, certainly not to the extent that Prairie Fires  did.  It wasn’t that the arguments were weak, just that libertarianism wasn’t actually mentioned that much.  Most of it was about the relationship between Laura and her daughter Rose, and the argument over whether or not Rose edited, even co-wrote, and was pretty much responsible for the final versions of the books.  As far as Christine Woodside’s concerned, there’s no argument – Rose played a far bigger part in the writing of the books than has ever been acknowledged.

Would it matter so much if she had?  Well, according to Christine Woodside, yes, it would, because we, the readers, don’t want to accept that the books are not the Word of Laura.  Or, indeed, that they’re not the True Word of Laura: I must confess to being quite upset when I had to accept that the life of the Ingalls family wasn’t exactly as it’s set out in the books!  As Christine Woodside points out, there’d be quite a to-do today if someone wrote a series of books which they claimed were autobiographical, and then it turned out that they’d changed a load of things and left a load of things out.  But times were different then.  Today, we’d just say that the books were “based on” the lives of the Ingalls family.  Which they were.

I personally don’t accept the theory that Rose did most of the work on the books.  I accept that she did some work on them, but I still think that they’re mostly Laura.  Let The Hurricane Roar, which Rose did write,  isn’t a patch on the Little House books.  Christine Woodside obviously thinks differently, and that’s fair enough, but I wish that she’d presented a more balanced view, and not gone 100% for the Rose theory.

I’d also have liked more about Laura and less about Rose, something which I find with all academic works about the Little House books.  The book also covers what happened after Rose’s death, i.e. the rather sad tale about how the copyright ended up in the hands of Roger MacBride, which wasn’t at all what Laura had wanted, but the positive, or negative, depending on how you look at it, story of how he got the TV series going and turned the books into a big franchise.  I do not like that word.  It does my head in when I hear American football teams referred to as “franchises”.  Did the TV series help to keep the popularity of the books going?  I don’t know.  For some reason, I never watched it.   It’s all about the books for me.

There are quite a few books about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane.  If you’ve read one of them, this one won’t tell you anything that you don’t already know.  If you want to read more about the libertarian theories, Caroline Fraser’s “Prairie Fires” is better.  But this isn’t bad, and I’m always glad to read another book about Laura.  She was a big part of my childhood, and one of the reasons I’ve always loved American history.  And nothing is ever going to change that!

 

Bess on her own in Canada and Sharlie’s Kenya Diary by Elinor M Brent-Dyer

Standard

These two stories, the second pair of “geography readers”, will probably only be read by Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) completists; but I enjoyed them.  I thought that they were very well-written, and I’m sorry that they weren’t longer: full-length books about Bess and Sharlie would have been so much better than, say, “Beechy of the Harbour School”!  The plot of the Canada book is rather thin and silly, and the Kenya book hasn’t really got a plot, but, for stories of this length, that doesn’t matter: the appeal is in the descriptions of the Okanagan region of British Columbia and many areas of Kenya.  Considering that EBD never visited either, she does pretty well with them.  The stories were intended to be educational and there’s some information in them about farming and produce, and also about soil erosion and vanishing lakes in Kenya, which may strike much more of a chord now than it probably did in the 1950s, but they’re more descriptions of the scenery than anything else.  There’s also quite a bit about the wildlife in Kenya, although, sadly, no-one has a pet lion cub (I love “Born Free”).

And both main characters are very appealing.  They both come from uncomplicated backgrounds.  Sharlie’s parents take her to Kenya with them because they *don’t* want to dump her somewhere, but she also has a term at school there because both she and they accept that kids do actually have to get an education and look towards getting a job!  Neither has a major character flaw requiring reform.  They’re just nice, ordinary girls, the sort who never get to take centre stage in full-length books.  And these are very nice reads.

The publishers have padded the book out with long introductions.  There’s nothing wrong with them, except that the Kenya one bizarrely mixes up Lancashire and Cheshire, but, having paid for fiction, I think I’d rather have had some short stories instead.  Oh well.  There’s also a note about the “patronising” language used about the natives in Kenya.  I’m not sure that it was any more patronising than the language used in EBD’s other books about the “peasants” in Austria and Guernsey, but they are given a voice, whereas, unfortunately, we don’t actually hear from any black characters in this.  However, EBD did devote a fair bit of the book to discussing the local customs – even if, as in A Chalet Girl from Kenya, she misunderstood/misused the word “shauri”, but she must have read that somewhere – which a lot of authors at the time would not have done.

Bess, then.  Fifteen-year-old Bess and her parents and two younger brothers live on a wheat farm in Saskatchewan.  When her dad suffers an accident which is going to put him out of action for several months, Bess is dispatched to Vancouver Island to find a cousin with whom they have lost touch and whose address they do not have (their letters to him have been returned), to ask him to abandon his own affairs and come and help. As you would.  The idea is that she’ll go to the first post office or police station she finds, and they’ll be able to track down the said cousin.  You do wonder why her mum didn’t write to the post office or police station, or indeed just engage a manager, but, OK, that would have spoilt the story.

She goes off with a woman whom she meets on the train and, hey presto, the woman’s brother-in-law knows the cousin.  But he’s moved.  To the Okanagan Valley.  So off Bess goes again, and she then goes off with a man whom she meets on a ferry, and, of course, he knows the cousin too.  Her propensity to go off with complete strangers is really rather worrying, but she finds the cousin, he agrees to come and help out, and she gets to spend some time looking round the area.

It’s a very silly plot, but the descriptions really are lovely.  Sadly, we hear very little about Vancouver (which for some reason is referred to as “Vancouver City”) or Victoria, which are both wonderful cities, but we do hear a lot about the Okanagan Valley, and the fruit farms there, and life around the lake.  It really made me want to go to British Columbia again!   It’s such a lovely part of the world, and that came across very well in the book.

Chalet School fans will know that Ted Grantley’s eldest brother was fruit farming in British Columbia, and that Bette Rincini was living in Saskatchewan.  I do wish that EBD had written about the experiences of the many Chalet School characters whom she dispatched, temporarily or permanently, to different parts of the Commonwealth; but she didn’t.  However, Sharlie and her parents meet a Mr and Mrs Scott in Kenya … are these Paul and Maisie Scott, the parents of Jo Scott?

Sharlie’s dad has to go to Kenya on business, and his wife and daughter accompany him.  The story’s in the form of a diary which Sharlie keeps to show her schoolfriends when she gets home.  They travel around, and it sounds wonderful – they see the main cities, go on safari, see lakes and waterfalls, and also see one of the “shauris” which Jo Scott talks about.  There’s some environmental stuff.  And some talk about locusts – which I associate with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “On the Banks of Plum Creek” but which are still causing problems in parts of Africa now – and also a bit about the history of East Africa.  Am I the only one who, whenever I see the word “Zanzibar”, immediately thinks “Ah, Freddie Mercury,” or does everyone do that 🙂 ?

So, two fairly short stories, but I liked them.  No-one other than an EBD fan is going to spend £13 on this book, but I’m glad I did!