The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 9, No 3 (2005)

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Sainsbury

Sheila Egoff's
Legacy


The Theft of Childhood: Depictions of the Second World War in The Dolphin Crossing and Dawn of Fear

by Mike Sainsbury


Mike Sainsbury completed his MLIS course work in July, 2005 and currently works at the North Vancouver District Public Library. He especially enjoys helping parents and children find great books. He lives in North Vancouver with his partner, Steve, and their two canaries.

The chance to study children's literature with Dr Judith Saltman at the University of British Columbia was an extraordinary experience. That seminar, along with this year's ceremonies to mark the end of the Second World War, led me to consider how history's deadliest conflict was (or could be) represented in children's literature. I chose two British chapter books, in part, for personal reasons. Like Jill Paton Walsh and Susan Cooper, my mother was a child in Britain during the Second World War and experienced many of the events those authors describe. Her father, however, (who was held as a prisoner of war in what is now Poland) never spoke about the war. That silence—common among ex-combatants—was finally broken a generation later. By the late 1960s, authors such as Paton Walsh and Cooper began to describe the Second World War for those children whose parents had grown up amidst its heroism and horror.



Children's books that deal with the military aspects of the Second World War are more difficult to find and recommend than those novels that feature young female protagonists. While it may be sexist and simplistic to label the former category "Books for Boys," such action-oriented novels do feature male characters and highlight issues peculiar to young male experience: bullies, bravery, and courage (and their attendant behaviours), the desire to emulate one's father, the possibility of military service, and (by extension) a boy's future participation in a war in which his father and older male relatives currently serve.

There are difficulties, of course, in depicting child protagonists against the backdrop of history's deadliest war. The authors must find a way to convey its horrors in a manner appropriate for children. They must inform or entertain, but not traumatize the child reader. Other difficulties existed for the first British children's authors to fictionalize this war. The men who returned from the conflict were more likely to keep quiet about their experiences than share them with others. And it was generally felt that the children who lived through the war were best shielded from its terrible memory. For instance , Sheila Ray, in a 1979 issue of Bookbird , describes growing up in Britain during that time: "[We] were all affected by rationing and the blackout, we grew up to take these for granted and, as [we] were never allowed to suppose for one moment that the British and their allies might not win, we never experienced the fears that must sometimes have troubled the adults" (Ray 14).

It was, therefore, nearly two decades until the juvenile literature of the Second World War began to develop. By then a generation of authors—whose "formative years were spent scattered over sundry pastoral retreats of the British Isles, awaiting news from home, or cramped into shelters hoping only for survival"(James 71)—had reached maturity. These authors include Jill Paton Walsh (b. 1937) and Susan Cooper (b. 1935).

By the mid-1970s—three decades after the Second World War—Marcia Shutze and M. Jean Greenlaw were among the first to suggest "a strong relationship between the increasing number of books with a World War II setting and the more permissive attitude toward realism in children's literature" (Shutze and Greenlaw 201). The development of this permissive attitude is reflected in Paton Walsh's The Dolphin Crossing (1967) and Cooper's Dawn of Fear (1970). These works, however, employ divergent strategies to depict the military aspects of the Second World War in a way appropriate for children. While Cooper uses analogy to transform the war into a conflict between two groups of boys, Paton Walsh writes in a heroic mode to engage her child characters in an actual historic event: the British evacuation from Dunkirk in May 1940.

As a member of the "advance guard" of British children's authors who wrote about the Second World War, Paton Walsh had identified an interest in the war among those children born after it. She ironically noted that "[t]hey think it must have been a time of excitement and danger, whereas it was actually dreadfully boring" (Telgen 191). Such boredom, however, would hardly make a good war story, so Paton Walsh places her child characters in the midst of one of the war's most heroic events: the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk after the fall of Belgium. This strategy, of course, "conform[s] to the basic rule of historical fiction for the young in having young central characters, with whom the reader can identify, present at a significant historical event" (Ray 15).

Before their involvement in that campaign, however, the novel's main characters—John Aston and Pat Riley—become friends. Despite a class difference (John is from a "country house" family; Pat is an evacuee from working-class London), their friendship begins when John rescues Pat from a gang of hostile teenagers. This analogy (fully exploited, as we shall see, in Dawn of Fear ) between inter-boy rivalry and the Second World War is made explicit when John reprimands one of the attackers: "You ought to be ashamed of yourself! . . . Your father, and my father, are fighting, or risking their lives to keep this a free country, and you go picking on someone for what they can't help, like any beastly Nazi!" (Paton Walsh 2). This episode conveys not only John's admirable sense of right and wrong, but also suggests his potential for heroism and his knowledge of the war. It is these characteristics that John will transmit to Pat during most of the novel's main action—characteristics that Pat will require for the heroic-yet-doomed action he takes at the end of the book.

Like many teenage boys in times of war, John and Pat demonstrate their sense of duty by discussing their plans to enlist as soon as they are able. Like his father, Pat plans to join the army. And while John's father is in the merchant navy, he himself plans to join the Royal Navy. Unfortunately, their will-to-heroism is stunted by their lives on the home front: to house Pat and his stepmother, the boys must spend most of their time renovating a barn on John's family property. Although this task requires great strength and skill, it is hardly the heroic war effort the boys feel they could or should be making. The encouragement and advice of John's mother hardly helps: "The contribution you two boys are making is to get Mrs Riley comfortably housed before the baby comes. And your war effort will go better tomorrow if you get some sleep now" (Paton Walsh 26). In the end, neither home-front effort nor motherly advice can assuage the boys' desire to be—like their fathers—part of the battle: "' If only I were old enough!' " thought John" (Paton Walsh 26).

In May 1940, with the fall of Belgium and the urgent need to evacuate the British Army from Dunkirk, John and Pat suddenly become "old enough." On hearing the grim and desperate news, John considers two possible responses: "[I]n the case of soldiers, fighting back; in the case of young boys and women sitting at home in a country at war, no action is appropriate" (Paton Walsh 60). At seventeen and (approximately) fourteen, however, John and Pat are hardly young boys. [1] Moreover, Pat's father is stranded on the Continent, now at the mercy of the German Army. With these thoughts in mind, John recognizes that "[f]ear had stiffened every nerve of his body, and was squeezing the breath in his throat. But it was not the 'Here-I-sit' fear this time" (Paton Walsh 78). It was the kind of fear that demands a heroic response. The boys therefore plan to use John's boat, Dolphin, to join the British rescue flotilla then assembling to cross the English Channel. For a final moment, thinking how much his mother would worry, "John wondered whether it was, after all, a noble thing to do. But then, if everyone stayed at home for their mothers' sakes, Hitler would have the world for himself" (Paton Walsh 84).

At this point in the novel, as the boys head into one of the most famous episodes of the Second World War, Paton Walsh's heroic mode is in full bloom: "The whole scene looked like one of those great paintings of sea-battles, with modern ships instead of galleons" (Paton Walsh 96). The boys have arrived to shuttle soldiers (some terribly wounded) from the evacuation beach to the rescue ship Wakeful, which has dropped anchor farther out at sea. Thereafter, the reader is engulfed in a world in which the boys are called upon by circumstance to become heroes: they must turn away stranded men or their tiny boat will capsize; they must continue their mission while men around them are being shot by German aircraft; they must shout orders to enlisted soldiers; they must leave the area knowing many (including, perhaps, Pat's father) will be left in enemy hands; they and the Dolphin are seconded to deliver an officer farther up the coast; and John must continue the mission after being shot in the arm and badly wounded.

On their return trip, as a final test of courage, John sees that the Wakeful, to which he and Pat had spent the whole day ferrying stranded soldiers, has been torpedoed and was now sinking: "A great gust of rage swept over John. All that work; the long day yesterday, the danger they had borne, the risks they had run, all for nothing. All so that those hundreds of soldiers could drown instead of being shot" (Paton Walsh 116). With such cruel irony, Paton Walsh terminates the heroic mode. Suddenly, as John now learns, war means enormous losses—even for the victor.

At the end of the novel, it is John's father who offers consolation. But John's experiences (which also include Pat's final disappearance) have moved him beyond the kind of heroism to which his father appeals:

"You know," he said gravely, "in a war there are always people who lose friends, or family. That's what war is like. But you have saved something too. Think of the men you saved." But John didn't even hear him; his thoughts were drowned, he couldn't think of saved men now.
(Paton Walsh 134)

In this way, Paton Walsh returns the reader to the less-than-heroic, less-than-satisfactory reality of the domestic world. But her depiction of the extraordinary events of Dunkirk, and in particular the fate of the Wakeful, [2] allows her to convey to child readers both the heroism and the horror of the Second World War.

That domestic world, on the other hand, provides the setting for other novels about British boys during the Second World War. In Dawn of Fear Cooper uses sustained analogy—in which the enmity between two groups of boys mirrors that between the Allied and Axis powers—to convey to the child reader "more than he or she realizes about the dreadful ubiquity of man's inhumanity to man" (Commire 78). Unlike Paton Walsh, however, who claims to have been bored during the war, Cooper recalls being scared: "Our insecurities may not have differed in kind from those of the modern child, but they were more concrete. That something that might be lurking in the shadow behind the bedroom door at night wasn't, for us, a terrible formless bogeyman; it was specific—a Nazi paratrooper, with a bayonet" (Commire 78). To convey this sense of "something" to child readers twenty-five years after the war, Cooper reworked her autobiographical novel, The Camp, and wrote Dawn of Fear.

Although "originally conceived as an adult book about wartime London" (Commire 81), Dawn of Fear is an especially important book for young male readers because of its treatment of bullies. As Kathleen Odean observes in her 1998 study of books for boys, "Bullies appear to be a universal threat for boys, making life miserable or frightening for their victims" (Odean 8). It is evident that by connecting with her young male readers on this "universal" level, Cooper hopes they will—by analogy—understand the hostility and violence of the Second World War. At the same time, she presents a socio-historical fiction—what Holsinger calls "one tiny pinprick in the history of the war" (Holsinger 72)—rather than the great heroic panoply of The Dolphin Crossing. This approach signals the period's historiographical change in both fiction and non-fiction writing—a time when points of view shifted from major world events and political figures to a sense of "what it was like to live through that period" (Saltman).

This emphasis on the quotidian allows Cooper to develop her analogy, which she does through discrete similes and metaphors as well as through an overall substitution of boyhood gangs for national armies. For instance, when considering what the war could possibly mean to their sons, Derek's parents believe that it is "[j]ust a great game, like cowboys and Indians" (Cooper 29). And when the neighbourhood bullies are seen torturing a cat, the image recalls contemporary political cartoons of Hitler waging analogous atrocities in Europe:

From his hand hung a piece of rope, and at the other end of the rope dangled a struggling black cat, the noose that was around its neck tightening each time David Wigg's hand jerked. Another boy was poking it in the belly with a piece of stick while it twitched and strangled.
(Cooper 37)

As in The Dolphin Crossing, such blatant boyhood cruelty is characterized as "beastly" and its perpetrator is branded "a Nazi" (Cooper 38). But, as in Paton Walsh's book, this passive verbal reaction (perhaps itself an analogy of Chamberlain's policy of appease-ment) cannot change the situation, which only gets worse. One week later, the cat is found drowned, the boys' camp is destroyed, and their special things (a collection of birds' eggshells, a blow dart, and a gun) are either wrecked or stolen. At that point, an older, post-pubescent boy encourages Derek and his friends to retaliate.

As the "battle" phase of the book unfolds, "[t]he parallels between youthful war games at home and bloody combat abroad and the exploration of how war develops and of the human capacity to hate are worked through. . . ." (Myers 330). What one critic dismisses as "[a] fussy concern for trivial details of where fences lie and how they may best be circumvented" (James 73) is actually the heart of the matter. The boys' mud-ball fight involves (for them) the same matériel, logistics, and strategy as a major military campaign. In the language of the battlefield, we learn it takes a day "to transport a stock of clay ready to be molded into ammunition on the spot" (Cooper 105). Comically, when the older boy explains they will need to move "from his garden to what he called the point of ambush. They had no idea what he meant...." (Cooper 106). Despite the younger boy's befuddlement about the fine art of war, they go through a war-games style basic training. The geography they move through is described with the precision of a battlefield chronicle, and their sneaking across a distance of perhaps a few yards reads like an army's cross-country advance.

These analogies continue as the narrative proceeds. Being in the boys' hiding place (a thicket of small trees) "was like being in a ship at sea" (Cooper 112). Other phrases extend the sense that this is no mere fight between boyhood rivals: "the battle was on" (Cooper 122); it enters a "second stage" (Cooper 125); we find the boys "planning a counterattack" (Cooper 125); they could have been "holders of the field, avengers of the original sneak attack" (Cooper 126); and, although they had lost their "advantage of surprise" (Cooper 126), they stand poised to "open fire if they're in range" (Cooper 127), and therefore launch a "defensive barrage" (Cooper 128) on the "besiegers" (Cooper 129).

Ultimately, the smaller boys stop fighting to watch the two oldest (one from each gang) locked in hand-to-hand combat that even they now realize is much more than it at first appears:

Tom Hicks and Johnny Wiggs these two still were there, but their faces had changed utterly; they were twisted up in some vast adult emotion as if they were fighting some fight that was not about themselves only, but about far bigger things. . . . [T]his looked like more than a kind of climax to years of enmity; almost as if the whole world had suddenly divided into two and the two halves were here flinging themselves one against the other. They were big boys, and neither was showing any sign of tiring. The fight seemed to go on and on . . .
(Cooper 135-6)

Elsewhere in the novel the war itself is described as "endless," so if the analogy were unclear before, it is made explicit in this climactic scene.

To conclude the novel, Cooper inverts the strategy that Paton Walsh employs in The Dolphin Crossing. In that novel, the protagonist's participation in the actual war is juxtaposed with his return to life on the home front. In Dawn of Fear, which only takes place on the home front (actually, a field behind the boys' backyards) the reality of an air raid intrudes to end the boys' quarrel.

With its ink-sketch illustrations and young characters, Dawn of Fear is aimed at a lower developmental level than The Dolphin Crossing. Ironically, it also requires more intellectual work to make the leap from boyhood bullying to grown-up warfare. But Cooper's use of analogy keeps the true horror of war from invading her characters' world (and her young readers' minds) until the very end, when the air raid (formerly an exciting and nearly nightly occurrence) becomes a deadly military strike that kills Derek's best friend.

In The Dolphin Crossing and Dawn of Fear, as with many children's novels that take place during the Second World War, "young children during wartime conditions assumed responsibilities and found themselves in situations where they had to make decisions which matured them beyond their years. War took from them something that could never be recaptured—their childhood" (Shutze and Greenlaw 204). In depicting this "theft of childhood," Paton Walsh wrote in a traditional, heroic mode of historical fiction by placing her child characters in the midst of a significant military event. Three years later, in response to changing expectations about historical fiction, Cooper depicted the ways in which a small slice of a child's life could mirror much larger aspects of the Second World War.

 

Notes

1 Oddly, although Anne Frank was also a teenager during the war, her work's subtitle became "The Diary of a Young Girl." There seems to have been a quirk of usage at this time, whereby "young boy" and "young girl" were actually intended to mean "young man" and "young woman."

2 In 2004 two name plaques from the Wakeful were returned to Britain for display at the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth. A report of this event recalled that HMS Wakeful was torpedoed on May 29, 1940 while carrying 650 soldiers being evacuated from the Bray dunes near Dunkirk. The ship broke in two and sank in 15 seconds. Only 25 crew and one soldier were saved. See Geoff Meade, "World War Name Plaques Recovered from Sea," The Scotsman, 22 January 2004 (3 April 2005).

Works Cited

Commire, Anne, ed. "Cooper, Susan." Something about the Author 64. Farmington Mills, MI: Gale, 1993. 75-85.

Cooper, Susan. Illus. Margery Gill. Dawn of Fear. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970.

Holsinger, M. Paul. The Ways of War: The Era of World War II in Children's and Young Adult Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1995.

James, David L. "Recent World-War II Fiction: A Survey." Children's Literature in Education. Vol. 8, 2 (Summer 1977). 71-79.

Myers, Mitzi. "Storying War: A Capsule Overview." The Lion and the Unicorn. Vol. 24, 3 (2000). 327-336.

Odean, Kathleen. Great Books for Boys: More than 600 Books for Boys 2 to 14. New York: Ballantine, 1998.

Paton Walsh, Jill. The Dolphin Crossing. London: Macmillan, 1967.

Ray, Sheila. "1979 — 40 Years after World War II: Children's Books in Britain." Bookbird. No. 3 (1979). 14-17.

Saltman, Judith. [On historical fiction for children.] [Lecture.] March 30, 2005. Vancouver: School of Library, Archival, and Information Studies, University of British Columbia.

Shutze, Marcia and M. Jean Greenlaw. "Childhood's Island Receives Gift of Myrrh: A Study of Children's Books with World War II Settings." Top of the News. Vol 31 (January 1975), 199-209.

Telgen, Diane (ed.) "Paton Walsh, Jill." Something about the Author 72. Farmington Mills, MI: Gale, 2001. 189-93.

Mike Sainsbury


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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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