Rereading: THE OXUS BOOKS by Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock

American edition cover and illustrations by Charles E. Pont, 1938

There’s a genre of novels for young readers made popular in England by Arthur Ransome and others, holiday stories, in which a group of children have adventures during their school holidays, usually far from home somewhere in the countryside. Adults are present, but generally unimportant, and the children have permission to be outside on their own most of the time. Ransome’s holiday adventures are my favorites, beginning with his “Swallows and Amazons” of 1930. Many of his books take place in England’s Lake District or on the Norfolk Broads.

One day in March, 1937, Ransome received in the mail an unsolicited manuscript for a novel somewhat like his own by two teenage girls, Hull and Whitlock, “The Far-Distant Oxus.” While he was not in the habit of doing so, he read it and liked it so much that he took it to his publisher, Jonathan Cape, saying it was “the best children’s book of 1937.” Cape published it in similar format to Ransome’s own novels for children, with illustrations by Whitlock. It sold well, and there were two more, “Escape to Persia,” and “Oxus in Summer” published in 1938 and 1939. Then World War Two brought the series to a halt, and the two authors went on to other things, publishing only one more unrelated book together.

The stories are about children from two families, and take place on a farm in Dartmoor and the surrounding moors and open country as well as a small nearby town. Both families are what I would call upper middle class. Bridget, Anthony and Frances Hunterly have been sent to stay at the Dartmoor farm of The Fradds, who rent out rooms to children as well as Dartmoor ponies to ride where they will. The Hunterly’s parents are away in India (a common solution for such books). Peter and Jennifer Cleverton live in the next farm year round with their father, who works in London, and is therefore not around much, another familiar tactic for getting adults out of the way. They have their own ponies.

Soon after they arrive to begin their holiday stay at the Fradd farm, the Hunterley’s are challenged by a mysterious boy riding a spirited black pony to join him for an early morning adventure on the moors. Thus begins a friendship that the Cleverlys soon join. Maurice’s background remains a mystery, something he prefers, and he, his pony Dragonfly, and black Labrador Ellita seem to be living rough on the moors for the summer. Maurice’s imagination has been captured by the Matthew Arnold poem “Sohrab and Rustum” about warriors in ancient Persia, and the children name all the landmarks in their vicinity after places and people in the poem, beginning with Oxus as the river that flows through it. The children build a rustic cabin for Maurice beside the “Oxus,” which becomes their headquarters and launching point for many adventures, including building a raft and riding on it all the way to the sea.

In the second book, “Escape to Persia,” the Hunterlys are spending their Christmas holidays in London with a boring aunt. A chance meeting with Maurice leads them to hatch an escape plan in which they run away at night and travel to Dartmoor on their own by train, bus, hitchhiking, and bicycle. The Fradds are not expecting them, but take them in with some persuasion from Mr. Cleverly, who is a good ally and also helps smooth things with their aunt. Maurice joins them for more adventures including a ride to Doone Valley and preventing a poacher they have befriended from being arrested.

The third book, “Oxus in Summer” takes a different turn when Maurice finds the Hunterlys in his cabin seemingly reading his diary. Furious, he sets fire to the cabin and declares war on them, enlisting help from a local family Maurice has met. The Hunterlys want desperately to find Maurice and tell him they were not reading his diary, but are stymied at every turn until a long chase across the countryside finally reunites them, and leads to an even crazier adventure where they stay out all night.

These books are great reads, and well written, with appealing characters and clever plots that never drag. I don’t like them quite as much as Arthur Ransome’s books, but they’re almost as good. They haven’t been printed nearly as often as the Ransome series, but can be found as used books, a link is below to the first one, which is an abridged version. At least two of them had American editions. They’re pricey, but worth a try, and something to look for. Recommended.

The Far-Distant Oxus

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