Rereading: THE NARROW PASSAGE by Oliver Butterworth

Oliver Butterworth was a teacher who wrote several novels for young readers. By far the most well known is The Enormous Egg, written in 1956, about Nate Twitchell, a boy in rural New Hampshire whose chicken lays and hatches a dinosaur egg. This book from 1973 is also about Nate Twitchell, now a bit older, who is invited by his scientist friend Dr. Ziemer to join a scientific research expedition to the prehistoric caves of France. Nate thinks it will be fun and a great opportunity, but when they get to the caves, he finds he’s mostly wanted to carry dug-up dirt out of the cave for the scientists, and the job is actually boring. But he does make friends with a French boy, Nicol, son of the inn owner, and they decide to do some cave exploring on their own on Sunday, when they both have free time.

What they find is nearly as unexpected as a live dinosaur, but not as funny or entertaining. Crawling through a very narrow passage in a cave that no adult could pass through, they find a cave with many paintings, and one seems to be fresh and unfinished. Then they meet a small old man dressed in animal skins with long hair and a beard. At first they are afraid of each other, but in time this caveman, so he seems to be, becomes friendly, and lets them see the small valley hidden in the hills where he lives. He also does some animal drawings on a pad of art paper Nate has. When the boys return, they’re excited but not sure what to tell the expedition leader, Professor Newall. They don’t want to spoil the cave man’s hidden existence. Professor Newell worms the facts out of them, and insists they look for the hidden valley. What will happen to the cave man, and is he really what he seems?

I enjoyed reading this, Nate is as entertaining as in the first book, but the overall atmosphere is kind of sad, as no good ending seems possible, and Professor Newall is rather mean to the boys. The magic of the first book doesn’t carry over to this one. Eric Blegvad is a fine illustrator, but I didn’t like his work here, perhaps because it doesn’t compare well to that of Louis Darling in the first Nate Twitchell book. Mildly recommended.

The Narrow Passage by Oliver Butterworth

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