The River Flows

Eva Ibbotson's "The Dragonfly Pool"

Eva Ibbotson’s “The Dragonfly Pool”

When I was young – around the 8 or 9 mark – my absolute favourite book for a long time, and over very many readings, was Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea. I remember this vividly, as I remember clinging to the book’s pages and several of its characters vividly, but the actual detail of the story I have long since forgotten. Or so I thought.

Looking up plot summaries of it recently, I am astonished to find how much of the story strikes chords in the depths of my memory: English orphan Maia is sent away to long-lost and unpleasant relatives in the Amazon region of Brazil, where she meets and adventures with several other children – both Amazonian and European – before they join together to carry out their escape from their discontented lives. I am secretly pleased to recognise even at that age my passion for books about far-flung journeys and other cultures. And perhaps the plot had a subconscious effect on me too, before I reminded myself of the content of the story: I’ve just married my very own Brazilian, after all, having fallen in love with both him and his country!

Anyway, when I was researching books for this challenge last year, and saw that another of Eva Ibbotson’s children’s books, The Dragonfly Pool, met my conditions for the county of Devon, I absolutely couldn’t resist. There are a great many similarities between the plotlines and characters.

Eva Ibbotson's "Journey to the River Sea", one of my childhood favourites and winner of the Smarties Prize in 2001

Eva Ibbotson’s “Journey to the River Sea”, one of my childhood favourites and winner of the Smarties Prize in 2001

The Dragonfly Pool begins in London, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Precocious, young Tally Hamilton lives happily in the city with her loving father, a respected doctor, and her aunts. However, when Mr Hamilton is offered a scholarship, by a grateful patient, for his daughter to attend a fine boarding school in Devon, his concern for her safety in the impending war overrules his desire to keep Tally near him. Although initially resistant to the idea of leaving behind all she knows and loves, Tally is sent off by train to the relaxed, fun-loving, if “strange and slightly mad” (62)
Delderton Hall. And she grows to absolutely adore it, falling in love with its unique natural surroundings, so different to what she had been used to in the city:

“There was no lovelier place in England: a West Country valley with a wide river flowing between rounded hills towards the sea. Sheltered from the north winds, everything grew at Delderton: primroses and violets in the meadows; campions and bluebells in the woods and, later in the year, foxgloves and willowherb. A pair of otters lived in the river, kingfishers skimmed the water and russet Devon cows, the same colour as the soil, grazed the fields and wandered like cows in Paradise. But it was children, not cows or kingfishers, that Delderton mainly grew.” (35)

Although the novel unfortunately does not provide much description of Devon, the county is set up as a safe and romantic backdrop where freedom reigns and children flourish. Against its green countryside, “it was easy to forget […] that Britain and France and so many of the free people of the world were in danger. Here in Devon we were unlikely to be bombed […] but we must be ready to do everything to help the war effort if the worst happened” (54). Domestic staff are being called up, radio broadcasts talk gravely about the political situation, and picture-houses show newsreels featuring Hitler’s fearsome visage and harsh foreign commands.

The Devonshire countryside that Tally falls in love with

One view of the Devonshire countryside that Tally falls in love with

But Ibbotson does not tell a Blyton-esque story of a boarding school’s efforts to withstand the war; she instead catalogues the children’s adventures around the grounds and on an overseas school trip to a folk-dancing competition held in the central-European Kingdom of Bergania (a Kingdom also beset by but so far proudly resisting Hitler’s threats). Soon, this develops into a mission to rescue the orphaned and mortally endangered Prince of Bergania, a modest and lonely boy called Karil. It is all slightly bizarre, but lives up to themes I recognise and appreciate of Ibbotson: themes of foreign journeys, children’s decision-making and agency, and of the hills and valleys of Devon (and Bergania, for that matter) being just as part of the children’s lives as their friendships.

A still of Hitler from a Nazi newsreel, like those seen by Tally in the novel.

A still of Hitler from a Nazi newsreel, like those seen by Tally in the novel.

I enjoyed the book, but I think that even had I read it at age 9, it would not have captured my imagination quite as much as Journey to the River Sea did. In truth, I was disappointed that the plot and setting were not more original – I wonder what percentage of children’s books are based around their antics during boarding school life…80%? 90? – and even with a couple of mentions of the impending war, the folk-dancing set-up in Bergania seems too trivial and far-fetched to give credit to Tally’s determination to attend and to rescue Karil.

I simply did not connect to the characters or to the landscapes that Ibbotson creates here. Part of the problem is that Tally, for one, is entirely confident and level-headed; she is not a sympathetic character, or one in need of her friends’ or a reader’s support in overcoming the obstacles set out in front of her. What is more, the obstacles – whether German officers or cruel, stuffy Englishmen or the challenges of war itself – hardly seem to faze the children in their exploits. Everything seems a bit too easy to overcome. I really think Ibbotson is missing a trick here; unlike in Journey to the River Sea, there are no vulnerabilities in the characters or challenging moments in the plot that young readers can catch hold of, be gripped by or dwell on; there is no chance to will the protagonists onward in their struggle because, before you know it, they’ve succeeded in another aspect of it. Overall, as a child or as an adult, I rate it 2/5 stars.

Author Eva Ibbotson

Author Eva Ibbotson

This novel certainly has not put me off Ibbotson, however. I look forward to reading some of her other work – aimed variously at children, young adults and adults – whilst knowing that it is for Journey to the River Sea that she received most critical acclaim, winning the Smarties Prize in 2001 and being highly commended for the Guardian, Carnegie and Whitbread Awards. I am truly sad to learn that Ibbotson died in 2010, and feel that I should have known this at the time: it is like losing a childhood heroin.

Next time I’ll be reviewing my very last book ever for this literary challenge around England! It’s Proper Job, Charlie Curnow! By Alan M. Kent, a Cornish writer. Stay tuned for that, as well as my subsequent summary of my favourite books and lessons from the whole year of reading.


IBBOTSON, Eva. The Dragonfly Pool. Oxford: Macmillan, 2009.

Featured Image: Liechtenstein countryside – some readers believe it to be the inspiration for Ibbotson’s Kingdom of Bergania.

The Story So Far…

Already, I seem to have talked endlessly about the importance of the theme of belonging in the modern English novel; in almost all 9 books I’ve read so far, the writers have depicted characters who struggle to define their place in society – who feel unwanted or ‘different’, who are literally homeless, who are ostracised or discriminated against or who simply fail to fit into their surroundings, perhaps because they are newcomers to a particular place. In most cases, these characters’ lack of belonging leads to an inability to define one’s own identity, and a perpetual state of misery, loneliness and uncertainty as a result.

Maureen Lee's The September Girls

Maureen Lee’s The September Girls

Maureen Lee’s The September Girls takes up this mantle of belonging, but also shows another side to it. Her story focusses on the poverty-stricken Caffrey family, who migrate from Ireland to Liverpool, Merseyside, in the ‘20s, in the pursuit of greater things, only to find that the “grand, rich place” (4) they imagined has a great many problems of its own. Strangers in this new and foreign land, they are unwelcome, inferior and utterly worthless – or so residents of Liverpool would have them believe. Here we go again, I thought, another novel about strangers lost in an unfamiliar place which they eventually, in the final pages, learn to love. I didn’t exactly let out a yawn, but we have seen a large proportion of this Bildungsroman framework on our journey through 2000s England. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Lee did not succumb to the usual formula.

Instead of the Caffreys getting down in the dumps about the occasional insults they receive from Liverpudlian locals – “get back to Ireland and take [your] filthy family with [you]” (9) – or pining overmuch for “the sun and the sky, the clouds and the green fields of Ireland” (40), they seem hardly to mind about their change of location. Their sense of belonging is not based, as with other characters we have come across, on their ability to fit in with the world around them, but on their place within the family itself – as long as they have each other, and “a proper house of their own” (3), their universe is complete. Thanks to this strength of identity and the security of the family unit, rarely is there an occasion when they feel lost or insecure about their situation.

In fact, it is the wealthy Marcus and Eleanor Allardyce – who have held a stable and respectable position in the city for generations – whose world comes crumbling down in the course of the novel. When they meet the Caffreys, their life of comfort and luxury is completely opened up; Marcus becomes a “Fish out of Water” (29), is out of place “in his own home” (157) and Eleanor explores “the narrow streets that were virtually on her doorstep, but where [she] had never walked before” (87). The city becomes a foreign environment to this couple more than it ever is to the Caffreys – the classic Bildungsroman formula, in which the protagonists develop over time to fit into society, is unexpectedly turned on its head.

Liverpool Pier Head 1920, where the Caffreys arrived into from Ireland

Liverpool Pier Head 1920, where the Caffreys arrived into from Ireland

In addition, the context of Lee’s novel allows her to present this theme of belonging in a new and particularly interesting way; the bulk of the novel is set during the course of WW2, in which two of the three Caffrey youngsters take part in horrors abroad while the rest of the family struggles to cope with air raids and strict rationing on the Home Front. In a time in which everyone is fearfully aware of their own mortality, surrounded by individuals who have lost limbs, loved ones and homes, and in which streets and whole city landscapes are being blown apart and nothing is recognisable, everyone’s sense of belonging is in jeopardy, not just that of the new Irish family on the corner, who slip into the melee rather than continue to stand out as foreigners. Things that have previously been taken for granted, like having “four pairs of perfectly good legs” (8) in the family, are called into question in wartime. Freud’s concept of the Uncanny instantly springs to mind, in which something – such as a mutilated human body or a bombed-out row of houses – can be familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time, generating a feeling of intense psychological discomfort due to the confusion between attraction and repulsion.

Another great thing about the novel is the war-related satire. I do love a good bit of satire. In particular, Lee completely undermines the concept of patriotism – as many writers did in the war poetry I’m sure we all must have read at school – which is particularly interesting for me in this journey to pin down an as yet mythical sense of English national identity. The character of Peggy exemplifies this in the line “I thought I was being patriotic [by signing up], but now it seems more like downright foolishness” (228). During wartime of course, people are judged repeatedly on their level of patriotism – labelled cowards or heroes depending on their willingness to fight for their country – when, really, the whole thing becomes a lot of nonsense. The romanticised image of England being all green pastures or bright lights can no longer exist in the imagination to motivate troops abroad, for it no longer exists in reality: hardly any of it is “left standing” (416) by the end of the war. In theory, with the city destroyed, the only characters who should be able to survive in spirit are the Caffreys, whose sense of belonging and identity is founded only on their relationships. Read it for yourself to find out what does happen..!

Cook Street, May 1941, the 'Liverpool Blitz'

Cook Street, May 1941, the ‘Liverpool Blitz’

Overall, I found Maureen Lee’s novel a breath of fresh air. Not only is it set in a period I haven’t yet read about on this challenge, but it is also clearly an important period, in the author’s mind, in the development of Liverpool into what the city represents today. The story was varied and interesting and it is an enjoyable read. Perhaps unfortunately for Lee, I have read very many fantastic World War novels, which makes me all the more aware that this is not as mind-blowingly emotional or symbolic or engaging as some. In fact, I found its length had a detrimental effect on its characterisation, which was revealed as quite static and two-dimensional in the case of the Caffrey family members. However, I’m having to exaggerate the issue just to describe what I found to be minor frustrations – I still rate the novel as a good read at 3/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth, which I’m really looking forward to. Have you read it? Let me know what you think!

LEE, Maureen. The September Girls. London: Orion, 2005.

Featured Image: The devastated Liverpool docks after the May Blitz of 1941.