Many years ago I discovered the three Oxus novels by these two teenage authors, writing holiday adventures of kids and ponies in wild Dartmoor, England in the manner of their favorite author, Arthur Ransome. This was their only other book and while it’s available online, it’s expensive. I finally decided to buy one, and here’s what I think: it’s a very odd book, but worth reading. The book is sharply divided into two parts, a central fantasy section of 195 pages framed by a mundane London section of 90 pages at the front and 30 pages at the end. The same four children star in each part, with the London sequence representing their real lives, and the fantasy sequence the wished for dreams of their imagination.
The children are cousins, brother and sister Rob and Eliza Jardine, and Andrew Gunn and Charlotte Roper. They live upper-class family lives in London some time in the 1940s (the book was published in 1947), and the opening section details their lives and personalities well. Readers of the authors’ Oxus books will recognize some similarities to the children there. Charlotte is headstrong, brave, and at times rude. Andrew is solitary, bookish and withdrawn, Rob likes to take charge of things, and is good at that, while Eliza is timid and somewhat more childish than the rest. They and many other cousins and relatives are preparing for an annual Christmas gathering where presents, mountains of food, and games will be on the program. One game is Sardines, where one person is chosen to hide, and with the lights off, all the others must find that person, but when they do, they simply join them until everyone is together and the game is over. Rob is chosen to hide, and he goes up to the attic of the house where only the three other cousins can find him. There, in the dark, somehow they imagine themselves as Kings and Queens in a far off land, though we don’t actually see or hear that, but it’s implied in the next long section.
Part two of the book opens, with no explanation, in a world where Rob, Charlotte, Eliza and Andrew are Kings and Queens together, though still children. Everyone bows to their authority, including their elderly advisor, the Chancellor. There is an old palace that they are having renovated to suit their desires, and each child has his special place planned in it. Rob takes on the role of leadership, sitting in the council chamber to hear complaints and petitions from the people, while the others mostly do what they like. Over days and months, they explore their realm, and learn more about it. Charlotte is the most active in this, pushing even beyond the borders of their kingdom, and putting herself and her courtiers in great danger. Andrew finds being a king not to his liking, and he runs off to live anonymously in the wilderness, having different sorts of adventures. Eliza prefers to stay at the palace, where she gradually becomes aware that all is not well in her realm, and that a plot to overthrow them is afoot. After many adventures, some full of peril, all four Kings and Queens are finally together again for a grand celebration…and then suddenly they are back in their real lives as their hiding place is discovered by the other children at the Christmas party.
The final section attempts to wrap things up, but oddly, almost no mention of their adventure is made, and the children don’t seem to have been changed by it at all. That’s where I think the book goes wrong, but I did enjoy reading it, and recommend it as an interesting experiment, and a finely crafted and creative story in the fantasy sequence. Of course, unless you find an old copy at a library, or want to spend too much money to buy one as I did, this isn’t easy.