Dust Up at the Crater School by Chaz Brenchley

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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.

 

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Cherry Tree Perch by Josephine Elder

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This is the second of the three “farm school” books, and the title comes from a cherry tree with two “perches”, where Annis and her best friend Kitty go for a bit of peace and quiet.  We’re told that there are various “dens” around the school grounds, used by individuals or groups of friends, and that everyone else respects that they’re someone’s do not disturb territory.   That sounds wonderful!   The lack of privacy is the worst thing about most fictional schools.  As a little kid, I used to think how wonderful it would be to go to the Chalet School or Malory Towers, but the lack of any sort of private space would have done my head in very rapidly.

There are several dramatic-ish incidents, including several small fires and a grand show, but there’s no big storyline, just a generally entertaining read about a summer term at the Farm School – the fruit-picking (which, oddly, all seems to take place at the same time as year), animal husbandry, pony riding and lessons.  The book emphasises over and over again how wonderful the Farm School is: the teachers are all wonderful (we’re told that they’re *not* perfect, but they’re praised to the hilt), the lack of rules doesn’t seem to cause any problems (although this is tackled in the final book of the trilogy) and helping on the farm is a far better use of time than anything which kids at ordinary schools might do.   But at least there’s plenty of emphasis on the need for hard work and passing exams, which there isn’t in some school stories.

There are some ups and downs in Annis and Kitty’s friendship, mostly involving Kitty’s admiration for newcomer Miss de Vipon, on whom Annis isn’t so keen.  That’s perhaps the theme of the book, the need to learn to share, be that people or things.

It turns out that the fires are being started by Kenneth, Kitty’s brother who has what would now be called special needs.  That storyline doesn’t sit very well with modern sensibilities, but the book’s over 80 years old, and Annis shows great understanding in accepting that he meant no harm, and hushing it up in case people started saying that he should be sent to an institution.

Annis accepts Miss de Vipon in the end, but Miss de Vipon obligingly moves away, and Annis and Kitty’s friendship continues on its way.  And the final chapter also includes a scholarship win and an engagement.

I’ve really enjoyed the Farm School series.  It’s not going to become a big part of my life, but these are three very enjoyable books and I’d recommend them all.

Strangers at the Farm School by Josephine Elder

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This is one of the sequels to Exile for Annis,  set at the Farm School which is one of several unconventional fictional schools inspired by Summerhill School.  The school has expanded, and amongst the new pupils are Hans and Johanna, two children brought from Germany to Britain on what we now call the Kindertransport.  Both they and the other new pupils initially struggle to fit into life at the Farm School, and, whilst of course everyone settles in in the end, what happens is quite interesting and thought-provoking.

The timing with the Kindertransport’s actually a bit out, because they arrive at the start of the 1938/39 academic year, three months before the transports began.  That can be forgiven, though.  The book was published in 1940 and, with most children’s authors either writing spy stories or ignoring the war and the build-up to war, this book, with its focus on refugees, would have been something different.

We see contrasting attitudes from the children.  Johanna is happy and grateful to be in Britain, but Hans is initially suspicious of the British due to hearing Great War stories whilst growing up; and, the children being from a wealthy family, he resents the fact that they no longer live in a big house with servants and luxuries.  That’s very interesting.  It’s not unrealistic that a child might have felt like that, but I think that an author today would be afraid to present a refugee in a negative way for fear of a backlash, even though it’s explained that Hans is reacting like this because he’s afraid and unsettled and struggling to come to terms with what has happened to him and his family..

Meanwhile, Annis has been elected as the first female president of the school.  The book is very supportive of women’s rights: Annis learns to drive, and insists that girls should be allowed to play whatever sports they like.  We also see that several female former pupils have gone on to university, and that Annis herself is hoping to go to Cambridge, to study sciences.  We also get arguments in favour of food and drink using only natural ingredients, with mutterings about not wanting beer produced in test tubes: that again seems like a very modern view in a book from over 80 years ago.  Comments about “peasants” and “gippos” are more dated.  I’m not trying to judge the book by today’s standards, just interested in the views on these issues, especially given what an “in” topic women’s sport, in particular, is at the moment.

Other than Annis, no-one actually seems to do very much schoolwork!   They’re either doing farmwork, learning to ride, watching hop-pickers or playing sport.   Very little time seems to be spent in lessons, something which the new pupils find strange and objectionable. To be fair, people with exams coming up are excused from some of the farmwork, but they still seem to do an awful lot of it.  But then there’s trouble when some of the new kids don’t want to get stuck in.

Of course, everyone eventually decides that the school is wonderful, but I’m not sure how realistic it is that people would have sailed through external exams after so little preparation.  And there’s a happy ending for Hans and Johanna.   But it’s not a simplistic book: there’s a lot in it to make the reader think.   The idea in a lot of Girls’ Own books is that everyone should learn to fit in and subjugate their own interests to the common good, but, using beehives as a metaphor, Annis suggests that that would be like living in a totalitarian state, and makes it clear that a balance has to be found between personal interests and group interests. But that’s easier said than done: they run into trouble with packing the apples because there are no rules about it and not enough kids volunteer.   But then is it OK to miss group work to pursue, say, a talent for art?

It’s a very interesting book, which goes a lot deeper than some school stories do.  Of course, all turns out well in the end, but it takes a while to get there.

Flight of a Chalet School Girl by Katherine Bruce

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The only time I’ve ever enjoyed an exam was when one of my General Studies A-level papers asked for the historical background to the war in Yugoslavia.  I love Balkan history.   I even love the history of fictional Balkan countries, so I’m delighted that, as a change from school stories, Katherine Bruce has written a book about Crown Princess Elisaveta of Belsornia’s flight from her homeland, as Nazi German troops prepare to invade, to safety in Britain.

We’re given the outline of the story of Elisaveta’s journey by Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD), and it has to be said that it’s one of several rather silly and unlikely episodes in the wartime Chalet School books.  For a kick off, Belsornia moves from the NW Balkans to the SE Balkans.  Then, on arrival in Britain, the princess takes a job as a charlady until she can afford to kit out herself and her children with clothes from a second-hand shops, and then takes a taxi to Armishire!   I mean, what on earth?!   Why didn’t she just report to the authorities?   Or send a telegram?  And who would employ a well-spoken woman, and one who probably had a foreign accent, as a charlady anyway?  Plenty of Continental royals sought refuge in Britain during the war, but none of them worked as charladies!

However, Katherine’s made a brilliant story out of the brief account of the long and extremely eventful journey, and has clearly done a lot of research into the situation in Europe and North Africa at the time.  She’s even made sense of the charlady affair, and generally made everything as realistic as a book about an unlikely journey made by a Ruritanian princess could be.  We even, touchingly, see Elisaveta going to London to sign the Allied Declaration condemning the treatment of Jews by the Nazis.

At the beginning, we see the visit of Elisaveta, her fiance and his aunt to the Tiernsee, and then we see the royal wedding, both of which are referred to by EBD after the events, not actually shown.   GGBP “fillers” are consistent with each other, but Bettany Press books evidently aren’t included, because neither Madge Russell nor Jack Maynard attend Elisaveta’s wedding in this book, although they did in Two Chalet Girls in India.  However, we do get some senior Yugoslavian and Bulgarian royals there, bringing Belsornia and Mirania into the real Balkan world.  It may be a Ruritanian country, but there’s nothing Ruritanian about the Second World War.  We jump forward to 1941 by means of letters exchanged between Elisaveta and Jo, and then the “adventure” part begins.   It all comes across very well and very realistically, as we hear that German troops are massing on the Miranian border and will in all likelihood soon reach Belsornia, and Elisaveta, her children and her maid are leaving, initially planning to go to Turkey and take ship from there, until things went wrong.

The name “Constantinople” is used even though the city had officially been called Istanbul since 1930; but, to be fair, EBD did that too.   And I could have done without the repeated use of “England” for “Britain” and “Russia” for “the Soviet Union”, but both were and are very common.  EBD sometimes even used “England” when referring to places in South Wales!  Also, the afterword mentions that a family with whom they travel are Armenian, which isn’t clear in the text as they had Turkish names.  Sorry, I’m a right nitpicker.  There are only minor nits to be picked, though!  The one big EBD-ism/KB-ism was saying that Jem Russell had been knighted.  He wasn’t knighted: he was created a baronet.  But what would a Chalet School book be without an error?   It’s all part and parcel of Chalet lore!   Having said which, Hilda Annersley would ban computerised spell-checkers, which don’t pick up typos such as borders for boarders or miner’s for miners’.

There’s a lot of careful detail about how they manage for food and shelter on their journey through Turkey and North Africa, and also about the ups and downs – literally! – of sailing on a small boat.  Arletta must have had superhuman strength to have been able to carry both the boys, but there wasn’t really an alternative: EBD doesn’t seem to have considered the practicalities of travelling with a newborn baby and two small children!  Just as an aside, my first ever piece of Chalet School fanfic featured Freddie Helston, Elisaveta’s eldest son, as the hero, so I was very pleased to see him in a “real” book.

The section about their time in Spain and Portugal is a bit rushed, but it would have been a bit samey to have heard any more about trekking and looking for food and shelter.   There’s no suspense element because we know that they’d make it safely to Armishire in the end, but then you kind of know anyway that children’s adventure books will have happy endings, and it doesn’t make the exciting bits any the less dramatic.  And Katherine’s done an excellent job of making sense of what happened when they arrived in Britain, by saying that the six week wait was due to quarantine after coming into contact with a scarlet fever case, that the charring job was shared with a woman with whom they travelled from Portugal, and that they only took a taxi from Armiford station to Joey’s!  She’s also shown Elisaveta being in touch with Belsornian officials in Britain, and other Belsornian exiles, which EBD curiously never does.  Much more realistic than the idea that an exiled Crown Princess would just have a jolly time living with an old schoolfriend.

I thoroughly enjoyed this.  I wonder if we’ll see more “fillers” along this line, a bit of a spin-off.  I think all the missing terms have been “filled” now, and books retelling the story of a “canon” term from a different viewpoint are limited as to what they can say because the story’s already there.   I’d certainly read anything else like this one: it was excellent.

 

Maybe, at some point during her stay in Britain, Elisaveta got to meet the young Princess Elizabeth.  I am so saddened by the loss of our beloved Queen.  May she rest in peace.

Alex by Tessa Duder

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Having watched a lot of swimming during the Commonwealth Games and European Aquatics Championships, I decided to look for a “Girls’ Own”-type book on the subject, and people kindly recommended this one, written in the 1980s but set in the 1950s, by New Zealand Empire and Commonwealth Games silver medallist Tessa Duder.  Fifteen-year-old schoolgirl Alex wants to make the New Zealand swimming squad for the 1960 Olympics, but there’s only room for either her or her rival Maggie Benton, and Maggie seems to have the advantage.

Unlike a lot of fictional characters, who are entirely devoted to music, ballet, ice-skating or whatever it may be, and have to be persuaded to do other things too, Alex wants to be in the school play, be in the school hockey team, do ballet, pass her piano exams, do well in her School Certificate and also spend time with her boyfriend Andy.

Like a lot of fictional characters, she suffers an accident (in a hockey match) which upsets her training, but it isn’t really a big deal: she just gets on with things.  And we don’t even see that much of her actually in the pool.  So it’s quite an unusual book.  And very 1980s – first person, lots of internal monologue and short half-sentences, and a lot of angst and anxiety.  Alex isn’t super-confident like so many heroines of books are, and spends a lot of time worrying about all aspects of her life and about what other people think of her.

Also, this is national news.  This isn’t just a tale of someone at a school: there’s continuous press coverage of the rivalry between the two girls, who actually get on OK.

Then something truly horrific happens, but Alex vows that it’ll drive her on … but, instead of a big showdown at the end, we’re just told that both Alex and Maggie will be going to the Olympics.   That ending was inevitable, but it’s strange that it just happens like that, rather than with a dramatic account of a very close race.

It’s very 1980s, as I’ve said.  Had it been written in the 1950s or the 1920s, there’d have been a big showdown at the end.   And Alex would probably have been devoted to swimming at the expense of everything else, or maybe had to choose between swimming and one other thing.   Quite unusual.  But I did really enjoy it.  Thank you so much to the people who recommended it!

 

 

 

Meg and Jo by Virginia Kantra

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  This is a “modern day retelling” of Good Wives, as the title suggests.  I’m not a great fan of this genre, because it feels as if someone’s just exploiting someone else’s clever ideas, and only read this as part of a Facebook group reading challenge, but I have to say that it was rather cleverly done.  Meg and Jo’s stories probably translate better to the present day than those of many “Girls’ Own” heroines would, because Louisa M Alcott told them so realistically.  In a lot of books, growing up is the difficult part, and setting up home, managing a budget, adapting to living with a partner, looking after young children and or establishing a career just come naturally and easily.  Not so for Meg and Jo, and that’s why they work well in the 21st century, having the same struggles as many other women in their 20s and 30s.

The action has been moved not only from the 1860s to the 2010s but from Massachusetts to North Carolina.  I’m not sure whether that’s because the author lives in North Carolina and preferred a Southern setting or because Massachusetts tends to be at the forefront of culture wars and therefore might not have fitted in with the story, but I thought it was a bit of a shame.  The Marches belong to New England.

Beth and Amy have got their own book, and only appear briefly in this – Amy as an intern with Louis Vuitton, later becoming a handbag designer, and Beth as a country and western singer who becomes a YouTube sensation (seriously?!).  I’m not sure that I fancy that book: it sounds a bit OTT.

This one works OK, though.  Meg has worked in a bank but is now a housewife, with young twins Daisy and DJ, and Jo is living in New York, writing a food blog and working in a restaurant whilst trying to get her books published.   Laurie, rechristened Trey (again, seriously?!), works at a car dealership owned by Mr Laurence, along with John Brooke, still hopes to get back with his high school sweetheart Jo, who only wants him as a friend.  He’s not really involved, though.  Presumably he features more in the Beth and Amy book.

Mr March is an army chaplain, and Mrs March runs her late parents’ farm and does everything for everyone else … rather less sanctimoniously than Marmee ever did.  There are no dead canaries, and no-one guilt trips Meg for wearing a fancy frock.  In fact, Mrs March helps with the dresses for the ball … which has become a school prom on which Meg looks back.   And she’s very much presented as the person who holds it all together, and Mr March as being selfish and only considering what works for him.

That’s an interesting interpretation.  I often think like that about Pa Ingalls, but I’ve never really thought of Mr March as always putting himself first.  Maybe that’s because a) Little Women’s set in wartime, so volunteering as an army chaplain seemed selfless and b) we don’t know how he lost his money.   But this book doesn’t offer an explanation for the loss of the money either.  It just casts Mr March as someone who’s far more concerned about his work than about his family.  Maybe he’s based more on the real life Mr Alcott than on Mr March?  That would makes sense, but it wasn’t what I was expecting.  Mr March in the Little Women books is a Good Egg, if rather patronising towards his daughters.

Professor Bhaer is now plain Eric Bhaer, the head chef at Jo’s workplace, and they get together after various misunderstandings.   That all translates to the present day quite well.  Various other characters, notably Aunt March and Sallie Gardiner, also appear.  Hannah is recast as a kindly neighbour.   And Fred Vaughn as a singer in a British boy band whom Amy followed on You Tube.  That really was a bit silly.  No Hummels.

BTW, is the term “family meal” a thing in the US now?  We have endless arguments in England over whether your evening meal is tea (we Northerners), dinner (ordinary Southerners) or supper (posh Southerners), but “family meal” is a new one on me!

To get back to the point, a lot of the story revolves around Mrs March being ill and Meg being the one to look after her, so that’s *not* from Good Wives, but the characters of Meg and Jo and how their lives are going very much are.   And it says a lot about the timelessness of the original story that that comes across so well in a book set nearly 150 years after it.

It’s well-written, but doesn’t quite have Louisa M Alcott’s charm.   Without the Good Wives connection, it’d just be basic chicklit – which isn’t a bad thing, just not something I’d usually read.  But, *with* the connection, it was far better than I was anticipating.  I suppose it doesn’t hurt to try something different sometimes!

How To Be True by Daisy May Johnson

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This, written by Daisy May Johnson, is a sequel/companion novel to How To Be Brave.  The main character is Edie Berger, the French girl who featured in the previous books as one of Calla North’s best friends.  It’s written in the same quirky way, with a lot of footnotes and a lot of comments from the narrator, but most of it’s set not at the school but during a school trip to France –  in which the girls become involved in trying to catch an art thief, and, in doing so, hear about Edie’s grandmother’s wartime history.

This involves a German family called Mercier.  That’s a very French-sounding name for a German family, but I did wonder if there was a tribute being paid to Odette Mercier of the Chalet School books, as the grandmother’s first name is Odette.  Maybe I’m overthinking things!    The Chalet School, Malory Towers and several other Girls’ Own books are referenced, though.  And how’s this for a 21st century twist on things? – rather than being abroad on colonial or missionary service, or, as Trebizon updated things for the late 20th century, having been posted to Saudi Arabia, Edie’s parents are absent because they’re “activists” and are off protesting.

The style of Daisy May Johnson’s books is very much her own, and her books, unlike traditional girls’ boarding school stories, don’t take themselves seriously in the slightest, but they carry the traditional Girls’ Own messages of friendship, teamwork, and good winning out over bad.  And it’s wonderful that people are still writing boarding school books for children.  In my day, in the 1980s, teachers didn’t really approve of our reading school stories, and it was held that boarding school books were too “elitist”.   Kids were supposed to want stories about comprehensives, like TV’s Grange Hill.   Alison Prince wrote a series called Mill Green, set at a school rather like Grange Hill: the books weren’t bad, but they never really caught on in the way that Malory Towers, St Clare’s, the Chalet School etc had done.   Now there seems to have been a swing back towards boarding school stories.  I think J K Rowling can take a lot of the credit for that, but it’s good to see other authors getting in on it too.

This is currently on a Kindle special offer, so, if you fancy reading it, it’s a good time!   Thank you to Daisy May, and long live boarding school stories!

The School in the Woods by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

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This is the second book in Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s “Toby” trilogy, coming in between The School on the Moor  and Toby at Tibbs Cross.  It’s a school-story-cum-spy-story published in 1940, one of several books in this genre published during the two world wars, but this one’s a bit different in that it’s set before the outbreak of the Second World War, in what I suppose is an alternative universe in which Dick Trevor (Toby Barrett’s future husband, although we don’t know that in this book) and his father develop a gas which could potentially be used to destroy entire armies, which they hope will act as a deterrent and prevent the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany, and any future wars.

The spy element comes in the form of traitors who are plotting to steal the formula, and this involves a mysterious girl at Toby’s new school.   Of course, all’s well that end’s well … but the reader, unlike the characters, knows very well that it isn’t, because this gas didn’t exist, and war is going to come.  And, in 1940, they don’t know what the outcome of that war will be.  In the next book, there isn’t actually any mention of this gas – war has come, Toby is working as a land girl, and Dick is involved in other war work.  So I’m not entirely sure where DFB was going with this book, unless maybe she wrote it before war broke out and it was wishful thinking.

There’s a lot of talk in this wartime book about the importance of the Empire and the idea of the Pax Britannica.   The “goodie” characters, and presumably DFB herself, all believe that, if this gas were in the hands of Britain/the British Empire alone, it would do nothing but good – it would bring about world peace by deterring “baddie” countries, which we presumably understand to mean Nazi Germany, from being aggressive.   Everyone firmly seems to believe that, as things stand (i.e. without the gas), war is inevitable – which seems a bit odd, given how many people genuinely bought the “peace for our time” idea.

People have all these ideas about what can bring about world peace.  One superpower.  Two rival blocs, based on ideology or, in the past, religion.  Nation states.  A federal Europe (I am adamantly opposed to this idea, but I do understand that some people genuinely think that it’s a good one).  A balance of power involving a number of different states.  And not one of them flaming well seem to work.  I suppose that DFB’s idea of some sort of very powerful fatal gas foreshadows the development of nuclear weapons, but even they don’t seem to be keeping the peace any more, because everyone seems to assume that the other side wouldn’t use them.   Maybe this fictional gas would have been better, because it wouldn’t have been as destructive or threatened civilians, so there might not have been the assumption that it wouldn’t be used.  But anyway.  It’s only a story.

In terms of the actual school element, not much happens.  Toby’s old school has been merged with another school, there are the usual issues in which the two groups of girls find it hard to combine, there’s a “them and us” feeling, and there’s a rather pointless subplot about a younger girl who keeps having hysterics. There’s also a local woman with whom Toby becomes friendly, and who eventually agrees to act as guardian to the aforementioned mysterious girl, who’s an innocent party in her elder siblings’ dastardly doings.   The main point of the book is the storyline about the gas.  And I really would love to know whether the book was actually written before or after war broke out.

 

Toby at Tibbs Cross by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

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This book sees Toby, the heroine of The School on the Moor, working as a Land Girl (well, sort of) in 1940.   There are surprisingly few books showing Girls’ Own heroines doing war work, so this one is very welcome.  Toby isn’t with the official Land Army, but is effectively doing the work of a land girl on a farm owned by Charity Sheringham, who features in some of DFB’s other books.  There’s quite a bit of information about farming, but not so much as to be boring, and love interests for both girls, so that all works rather well.

However … in keeping with the the Raiders of the Lost Ark storyline in The School on the Moor, Toby soon finds that a disease killing local farm animals, and which nearly kills her dog – which, incidentally, is referred to as “Master Algy” by Charity’s maid – is being caused by the local vet, who is in the pay of the Nazis and is injecting all the animals with poison.  Right.  And the only person who is able to save the animals is a gipsy horse doctor.   It turns out that, whaddaya know, the gipsy horse doctor is none other than Toby’s admirer in disguise, trying to catch the baddie vet out.

Meanwhile, Charity’s beau has gone missing during the Dunkirk evacuation, but he returns in a German plane, which he was able to nick as its pilots had left it unattended whilst they went to the pub.  As you do.

There’s a dramatic conclusion in which Toby’s admirer is beaten up by the baddie vet, leaving Toby to do the catching and apprehending … and a very sad sub-plot which sees the vet’s disabled niece die.   Both couples get engaged, and presumably live happily ever after – the two men being exempt from further military/police service due to the importance of their farming.

I think it’s important to remember that this was intended as a children’s book.  A lot of children’s books written during both world wars feature spy stories and derring-do, and young readers would probably find a book which was just about farming and romance rather boring.  So, although it seemed rather OTT, it was probably right for the audience for which it was written – and the actual writing was very good.  Now I just need to get hold of the middle book in the “Toby” trilogy!

The School on the Moor by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

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OK … this is an ordinary school story, from 1931, which bizarrely turns into a cross between Escape from Alcatraz and Raiders of the Lost Ark before reverting to being, er, an ordinary school story!   It’s quite a well-written book, but the mixture of genres is a bit bizarre.

Our heroine is Toby, short for Tabitha.  What is it with boyish “shorts” in Girls’ Own books?  I mean, what’s wrong with “Tabby”?!  Toby is the new girl.  It’s a little bit different from standard school stories in that i) Toby is in the VIth form and ii) she is a day girl at a boarding school.  Oh, and there’s a bit of animal stuff thrown in as well – Toby has a pony, and an anthropomorphic dog (which, again, seems rather odd in a school story) rejoicing in the name of Algernon.

It starts off in a standard sort of way.  Toby has a boyish name, and a widowed father, and has never been to school before.  She’s keen to get in with the in crowd, and hopes to do so by virtue of playing well in a tennis match … but her hopes are thwarted by someone else’s misdeeds, and she can’t clear her name without sneaking.  Of course, it all comes out in the end: Toby’s name is cleared, she gets her place on the tennis team, and she gets to be everyone’s friend.

There’s a sub-plot about a girl who wants to go to art college but can’t afford it, and, of course, that all ends up happily, thanks to Toby.  And there’s a prestigious prize, which, needless to say, Toby wins.  And there are some naughty younger girls, and a bully who, thanks of course to  who else but good old Toby, meets her just deserts.

So that’s all standard stuff, and all makes for good reading if you like school stories.  However, we’ve got two very odd sub-plots thrown in.  One involves Ursula Grey and Lesley Musgrave, who feature in the Dimsie books but are now in their 20s, Lesley being one of Toby’s teachers and Ursula being a famous cellist.  A prisoner escapes from Dartmoor jail (the school’s in that area), and it turns out that he is Lesley’s brother and Ursula’s fiance, and has been wrongly convicted.  Of course, he comes across Toby, who, rather than screaming blue murder, can tell just from looking at him that he’s as pure as the driven snow.  She, Lesley and Ursula arrange for an old school chum of his, who has a small private plane which can be landed on the moor – as you do – to rescue him and fly him off to relatives in Africa.

On top of that, Toby thinks that the Ark of the Covenant is hidden on Dartmoor.  Now, I thought that the Ark of the Covenant was supposed to be in Ethiopia.  Yes, I know that Indiana Jones went looking for it in Egypt, but that was presumably just because it worked better for the purposes of the film.  But apparently there’s a legend that it was taken to Tara.  That’s *the* Tara, the one in Ireland, not Gerald O’Hara’s plantation.

I have to confess that I’d never heard of this idea, but, according to the “oracle” that is Wikipedia, “Between 1899 and 1902, adherents of British Israelism dug up parts of the Hill of Tara in the belief that the Ark of the Covenant was buried there, doing much damage to one of Ireland’s most ancient royal and archaeological sites”.  I mean, we all know that the Holy Grail is buried somewhere near Glastonbury, right?  And that the descendants of Aeneas, the “hero” (he’s such a wimp!) of the Aeneid, came to Britain?  And were the ancestors of King Arthur, whose sword is probably also somewhere near Glastonbury?  Evidently a very popular place, Glastonbury.  I went there a couple of years ago.  Nice vegetable pasties.

Anyway, this idea obviously *did* exist, and Dorita Fairlie Bruce had obviously come across it.  So Toby has heard some sort of local story that, rather than being taken to Ireland, the Ark was taken to Dartmoor.  And she thinks she’s found it.  I suppose it makes about as much sense as some of the things that happen in the Enid Blyton “Secret” and “Adventure” books, but it just doesn’t fit into an ordinary school story at all.   Not quite as bad as someone vanishing into space in a Chalet School book, but not far off.

However, at this point, Dorita Fairlie Bruce does return us to reality, and it turns out that what Toby has found are some items removed from a local church in the mid-17th century, and hidden to protect them from Cromwell’s troops, and that the local story which Toby has heard has got tangled up with the Lost Ark thing because the bloke who hid the church stuff was, like the prophet who’s supposed to have hidden the Lost Ark, called Jeremiah.  If anyone’s actually reading this, are you still with it?  It’s really not the kind of thing you expect to come across in a school story!

The sub-plots were crazy and really didn’t belong in the book.  It would have been enough to have said that Toby had come across some buried treasure which turned out to be from the Civil War period, and the escaped prisoner storyline wasn’t needed at all.  But it’s always nice to learn something new, and I really had never come across that idea of the Ark being in Ireland before!  So, er, there you go!