Tuesday 5 May 2015

The dolphin crossing by Jill Paton Walsh

The dolphin crossing by Jill Paton Walsh (Macmillan, 1967)

16 chapters; 134 pages

Subjects: World War Two, England, France, Dunkirk, boats, evacuees, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

There are several different covers and this one (Puffin modern classics) is better than some of the others! 

This book was a surprise as I had certainly heard of it and was sure that I had read it as a child, but actually I don’t think I ever did, as it seemed quite new to me.

The story is set in 1940 on England’s South Coast. John, aged 17, has come home from boarding school to keep his mother company as his father is away in the Merchant Navy. His older brother, whom we never meet, is a conscientious objector and has volunteered as a medical orderly in a hospital in Birmingham. The other main character, Pat, is a few years younger, and an evacuee from London; his father is fighting in France, and he and his mother, who is heavily pregnant, have been put up in a ramshackle disused old railway carriage sitting in a farmer’s field.

John has a tutor who is teaching him Latin and Greek in preparation for his exams for Oxford, and his family is obviously well-to-do, although their house has been taken over for use as a hospital and they are living in a smaller cottage in the grounds. Pat comes from a much less privileged background. The differences show in their speech and in the things they each take for granted.  John comes across as quite a “prim” character for a 17 year old; for example, he is shocked that Pat expects him to eat chips out of a newspaper parcel, in public. He is also conflicted over his brother’s decision and finds it hard to defend his choice.

The boys become friends over a project to turn an old stable into more suitable accommodation for Pat’s mother and the baby. When they start to realise what is happening in France – the thousands of Allied soldiers trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk – they hatch a plan to take John’s father’s boat, the Dolphin, across the Channel to help rescue them. Gradually they come to appreciate each other’s strengths - Pat is better at building and practical work, John is better at handling the boat - and in the end they work together as a team.

This isn't a long book; there are very few characters, and some (like Pat’s mother or John’s tutor) are lightly sketched.  After an initial scene of the local school bullies taunting Pat, we hardly ever see any more children or young people.  

The scenes of sailing the boat and the action at Dunkirk are well done and full of tension. The main sticking points for today’s readers are likely to be the vocabulary (words like “Gracious!” and “beastly”) and the dialogue which sometimes feels old fashioned, formal and wooden (for example, John’s father greets him with, “Where the hell do you think you’ve been, sir?”) 

goodtoread.org (a parent's guide to children's books) calls it "A short but thoughtful story, focusing on the effect war has on different characters and what courage is about". 

This reviewer also comments on the uninspiring cover design and describes it as "a short book that covers a lot of ground", with a particular focus on class differences. 

One more review here from someone else who (like those mentioned in Questions below) has an issue with the ending. 

The review on goodtoread.org ends with the line: “The question of whether Pat's final action is bravery or stupidity is left open”. Another reviewer quoted above says the reader has to "decide for themselves whether Pat’s disappearance was an act of heroism or simply schoolboy foolishness."

Bravery or stupidity; heroism or foolishness - what do you think?

Author’s website
Jill Paton Walsh was born Gillian Bliss in London in 1937. She is married to John Rowe Townsend (another author). Her website includes an author interview for young readers, for example, "when did you start to write?" 
  • I'm a late developer. I started only when I was 26. All the other writers I know started sensibly, when they were children. If you are thinking of being a writer, however old or young you are, start now!
There is a very funny article in the Guardian about how her self-published book Knowledge of angels made the Booker shortlist in 1994.

On the back flap is a quotation from Jill Paton Walsh
“This book is an attempt to make a serious picture for young readers of the great experience of their parents’ lives – the last war. That war raised difficult moral questions; disrupted the lives of almost everyone then living; permanently upset the social order of England, and brought out in ordinary people astonishing manifestations of courage and unselfishness. it was not a matter of cheap heroics.
For real heroics are painful and costly. I have tried to show this. The actions of my characters fall far short of the heroism of real life; they are, however, “truthful” in the sense that there really were school-boys who joined the many civilians in ferrying the British army across the Channel. I hope this is also a truthful book in another sense; when real people take real risks, they really get killed.”

Other books you might like
Jill Paton Walsh wrote other books about war, including Fireweed.

The snow goose by Paul Gallico is a haunting tale about the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Things I didn't know
How to make the most of your butter ration! Food rationing was in force and the lack of butter (and inadequacy of margarine) is often mentioned. John dreams of “great slabs of butter, too thick to spread, piled on sticky buns” and prefers to eat his ration all at once: “that way at least I can have enough to taste properly one day a week.” John’s mother spreads a thin scraping of butter on her scone and says, “The Ministry of Food adviser wrote to the paper today saying if you put it in your mouth upside down you can taste it better. Butter side against the tongue.”

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

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