This is the second book in the series which began with Three Twins at the Crater School. The two sets of twins and their friends are now part of the group called The Crew, like that (rather forgettable!) gang in the later Chalet School books. And we learn that the school’s founder left to marry the head of the Sanatorium. Of course she did. Several other mistresses (mistresses, not teachers) have also left to marry doctors. Of course they did. In fact, there’s a sister/mother school in Tyrol. The founder hasn’t got a sister, as far as we know, but the “butting in” role is fulfilled by former Head Girl Rowany de Vere, back at the school after she failed to get into Oxford.
We learn that the colony on Mars has been there for 150 years, and that those on the “First Ship” are venerated rather like those who were on the Mayflower. There’s a lot of talk about Pioneers, and at one point there was a Long Winter – although there’s no mention of anyone called Ingalls or Wilder 😉 .Not many women carry on working after marriage because, we also learn, Martian society is still rather patriarchal, with careers for married women not being a thing. And sport for women isn’t really a thing either. At the same time, Martian women are supposed to be strong, because the colony would never have survived otherwise. Definitely a bit of Laura Ingalls Wilder there.
It looked as if that was going to be the main theme in this book – the role of women, and the GO trope of the tomboy. A lot of attention has been paid to this in recent years, since the Malory Towers musical which suggested that Bill Robinson was non-binary or transgender. Bill turned up with a horse, and possibly inspired the chapter in which the Crater School’s Ella-Stephanie, known at home as Stevie, turns up with a camel. And there’s Tom Gay at the Chalet School, whose father raised her to be a “gentleman”. Stevie’s father, a widower in a male-dominated pioneering community, has also raised his daughter more as a boy than as a girl. But there’s no suggestion that Bill, Tom or Stevie identify as anything other than girls, whereas George Kirrin of the Famous Five is always delighted to be mistaken for a boy. It’s a big “in” topic … but nothing really happens in this book. Ellen-Stephanie is determined to be girly and ladylike, but pals up with Pete, who insists on being known as that rather than by her proper name, and is into traditionally boyish things, but that’s about it. Nothing really happens. Mind you, it never does with Bill or George either.
There’s also a half-Russian girl, Catherine/Ekaterina. Rowany finds out that Ekaterina/Catherine’s dad wants her to spread Russian propaganda at the school. But she doesn’t. Then she runs away. But all this is in the space of a couple of chapters: we don’t really see her trying to get close to people for her own purposes, as the Chalet School’s Gertrud Beck did.
There’s a storyline about ghost stories and sleepwalking, which is very Chalet-esque. And there’s a big dust storm. And a Nativity Play, with the issue of an Earth calendar not really working on Mars – and that ends it all on a happy note, with everyone feeling jolly and Christmassy.
I did enjoy the book, but it feel rather bitty. There are a lot of different elements to it, none of which really extend through the entire course of the book, and it keeps jumping about between them. It might have been better to have kept the focus on fewer characters, and saved some of the storylines for another book. But still, it was entertaining enough, and I hope that we see more books in this series. I think we will.