It’s finally time for my write-up of the first novel in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence, and what a perfect summer read Over Sea, Under Stone (OS,US, 1965) made.
In my introductory post to the readalong, I posted a few questions to consider while reading the book, and I’ll reflect on those below, but here they are again …
- We’re reading the book in prime holiday season. Does it successfully evoke the sense of adventure of childhood holidays at the seaside for you?
- This novel was initially written in response to a competition to honour the memory of E. Nesbit, although it wasn’t actually entered for it. How well do you think Cooper achieves this?
- I can’t help comparing the Drew children to Narnia’s Pevensies. Barney would be Lucy, Simon would be Peter – does that make Jane Susan? What other parallels are there if any?
- And what about the dog? How does Rufus compare with Tintin’s Snowy/Milou or Timmy in the Blyton’s Famous Five?
Holidays in Cornwall were a mainstay of my childhood. My family favoured the northern coast, Perranporth’s endless sands in the 1960s, shifting up the coast to Trebarwith Strand near Tintagel in the 1970s. Trebarwith beach was surrounded by cliffs, and had rock pools – a proper kind of beach to have an adventure on, as the Drew children do in OS,US. Cooper’s location is on the southern coast of Cornwall though – her fictional Trewissick being based on Mevagissey, which I last visited in 2010 while staying on the south coast at Fowey this time.
The Drew family, parents Dick and Ellen, children Simon, Jane and Barney are met at St Austell station by their Great-Uncle Merry to be taken to the house of an absent sea captain that Merry has taken for the holidays. ‘The Grey House’ up the hill from the little harbour town comes with resident dog Rufus, and Mrs Palk will come in to cook and keep house for them. It’s fair to say that the children are often left to their own devices and it’s on one of those rainy days when they are exploring the attic, having pushed aside a wardrobe blocking the door (loved those nods to Lewis in The Magician’s Nephew and TLTW&TW respectively), that they discover an old crumbling map with strange annotations and, having convinced themselves that they should be allowed to find the treasure, they set about trying to decipher the riddles.
Their questions however, are overheard by the wrong people, and soon the children find themselves being pressured on all sides, by rich yacht dwellers who try to entice them onboard, a vicar that isn’t, and the rosy-cheeked Mrs Palk isn’t quite who she first seems either. They have awakened the interest of the Dark Ones, but with Great-Uncle Merry (sometimes known as Gummery – surely a nod to Great-Uncle Matthew aka GUM in Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes) on their side to nudge them in the right direction, and Rufus’ guard-dog abilities they are on their way to find, not pirate treasure, but the Grail!
OS,US is a superb adventure, in the tradition of Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ but much better written. Although there is no physical magic as such there is a magical air and the combination of Celtic and Arthurian myth and legend with a quest and the strong sense of place brings Alan Garner’s wonderful The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath to mind. And big-child that I am, remember I am reading these books for the first time, I didn’t immediately associate G-U Merry with that wizard until it was made crystal clear, although there is a definite air of Gandalf about him – der!
I liked the three children, especially Barney. Yes, Simon is the born leader of the trio a bit bossy, but Jane has good ideas and holds her own, even though she is more cautious than the others. Having wondered if they corresponded with any of Lewis’ Pevensies, I would still say that Barney is a male-Lucy type. Jane is so much more than Blyton’s bland homemaker Anne, but not a tomboy like George either. She is more like Garner’s Susan rather than Lewis’ perhaps!
All this brings me to the question over whether Cooper channels E E Nesbit in this novel, as it was written as a response to a competition to honour Nesbit’s memory. The most obvious comparison for me is with the exploits of the Bastables in The Adventures of the Treasure Seekers over the more magical exploits of the five children in her ‘Psammead’ books. In Year 6 at primary school, back in 1971, I played bossy Oswald Bastable, surely the model for Simon, in a school production of a play derived from that book – and even wrote a final scene for it in which the children found a treasure chest in the attic, full of fizzy pop and sweets – wish fulfilment indeed.
I utterly devoured this book, and can’t wait to read volume two, which gives the sequence its name. Written after a gap of eight years, and with a new cast of characters and new location – will these shifts prove too much, or should we see OS,US as a prequel to the main event? No specific questions this time, but I will return next month on the 24th again.
Meanwhile, if you joined in on the first episode of this readalong, thank you very much – if you’ve written about it, do leave your links below.
Source: Own copy from the TBR, Book 13 of my #20BooksofSummer. Red Fox paperback, 362 pages.
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