England, 1939. Tally doesn't want to go to boarding school. She doesn't want to leave her father, her aunts, London, or the silver barrage balloon that floats above her house like a kindly giant sausage.
But once she gets to Delderton, she finds that it is a special place -- a place where you are given the freedom to explore the world and to become whoever you'd like to be -- and she quickly grows to love it.
When she sees a newsreel about the tiny country of Bergania, she is immediately fascinated by it, by the brave and noble king, and by the uncomfortable-looking young prince -- so when an opportunity arises to visit, she knows that Fate is at work.
Sadly, The Dragonfly Pool has fallen victim to that Villainous Villain of the book industry: a cover flap that -- rather than letting us explore and adventure with Tally and Karil and Matteo and Clemmy and Kit and the rest -- spills almost the entire plot. Luckily, this is an Eva Ibbotson book: while the plotting is enjoyable and interesting, it's the characters and dialogue and actual storytelling that really count.
Like many of her other books, The Dragonfly Pool is chock-full of lovely, bright, generous, old fashioned, sweet -- yet still completely, utterly likable -- children. Even the rather awful ones are strangely charming:
Gradually, very gradually, the children who had scoffed wandered away. The snooty Verity turned out to be the best at dancing, which was a pity but the kind of thing that happens in life.
And it's nice that characters like Verity aren't just used as punchlines, or as a way of Teaching a Lesson -- they are occasionally surprising, and the narrator and the other characters have a sort of exasperated affection for them. Well, most of them. I'll let you experience Carlotta for yourself.
It's a story about friendship, about trust, about kindness and empathy and forgiveness, and about faith. Faith in yourself, in other people, and in the world. There's action and adventure; many, many laughs; and real, honest-to-goodness pain. Tally is a heroine with strong convictions and stronger determination, but who isn't immune to doubt. Karil is a hero who needs to learn to be a hero. And I can't imagine not loving the supporting cast -- children and adults (including Pom-Pom, the Outer Mongolian pedestal dog and even The Scold).
I was especially happy to read a WWII story that didn't fall into the All Germans = Nazis trap. There are German characters in this book -- again, children and adults -- who, because of the rise of Hitler, have lost things precious to them. They've lost their innocence, memories have become tainted. And of course, they've lost other people.
If you haven't read any Ibbotson, you're missing out -- while I'm sure that's something you've heard before about a plethora of authors, it really is true in this case. She writes the sort of old-fashioned children's stories that make you smile all the way through and then make you happily cry at the end.
She can make you feel as if bad things won't/can't/shouldn't happen, and then, when they do -- because life is life and bad things DO happen -- she can help you soldier on through and past, reminding you that while there is pain and heartbreak, it doesn't mean that we should ever be resigned to it. That while we should acknowledge it and work through it, we should never give in to it. Her characters are both idealistic and realistic. She doesn't sugarcoat anything -- people who do Bad Things, for instance, do not always have to pay a price -- but somehow, the world she writes about, even with its darkness, is beautiful.
Book source: My local library.
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