I am indebted to an essay by Cheri Lloyd in ‘Out of the Attic – Some neglected Children’s Authors of the Twentieth Century’which helped me contextualise both the story and my thoughts about it.
We Couldn’t Leave Dinah is interesting because it is a book about WWII,
written at the outset of the war while Mary Threadgold was seeking refuge from
the Blitz in London’s public air-raid shelters. In a talk given at the
University of Reading in 1998, W Parsons pointed out that “Books (…)
become ‘cultural products’ which reveal some of the attitudes and assumptions of
the times in which they were written or read, and the ‘meanings’ which they
endorsed or challenged”. As such We Couldn’t Leave Dinah is to
some extend a more time-typical or accurate portrayal of the war (at least from
the point of view of a particular person) than many books which are written
retrospectively and/or by people who did not experience the war themselves. It
displays political and social attitudes that are outdated but it gives us an
understanding of the attitudes and thoughts at the time. This does not mean we
condone them, and it has been said that the longevity of Dinah is due
to its status as a pony book rather than a wartime novel (Peter Hunt, Children’s
Literature: An Illustrated History).
We Couldn’t Leave Dinah tells the story of the German occupation of a (fictitious) Channel Island through the eyes of the two Templeton children, Mick and Caroline. At the
beginning of the story, Caroline and Mick are both keen riders and preoccupied
with finding a new secret meeting point for the local Pony Club. The children
are accidentally left behind when their family evacuate and they take refuge in a
secret cave. From here they get involved in espionage and codebreaking and help
foil the Nazi invasion plans before finally getting evacuated by the Navy in
the dead of night.
Though it is clear that Threadgold was steeped in the ideology of the
period, with its concept of pulling together and stiff upper lips, Cheri Lloyd
points out that Threadgold uses the character of Peter Beaumarchais
didactically in order to reveal to readers something about Nazi atrocities; the
Tempelton’s responses to Peter’s questions about the situation in Europe show
they are in fact quite well informed about concentration camps.
To me, it is a book of two halves. The first half is clearly a pony book (a
genre I was very partial to as a young, pony-mad girl) and has Caroline very
firmly at its centre. However, following a nocturnal ride across the island,
girls and ponies become more or less incidental to the narrative thrust and Dinah, Caroline’s horse, is left behind after all. In a move which
Cheri Lloyd compares to the portrayal of Mary in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The
Secret Garden, Caroline is relegated to the sidelines as the
espionage/adventure element takes over with her brother Mick as the
protagonist. In my opinion, the two genres don’t mesh well in this
particular book; it falls between two stools and I have to admit I skipped a
chunk in the middle. Once Mick and the espionage story was foregrounded, I was less interested.
The book’s overall theme is one of displacement and the way that it invades
your privacy and challenges your identity. To me, this is the meaning of the title; at the outset it is inconceivable to Caroline that anything should change in her life and that she should be forced to leave anything behind, not least her beloved pony. At the end, she is happy to escape with only the clothes on her back. Displacement is a topic which resonates with children of all periods and maybe this is another reason why this book has
survived into several reprints. Of course, there is defiant (and, given that the war was still ongoing, brave) moment at the end: “Clerinel was already hidden in the darkness. Anyway, she thought, it didn’t much matter. Like the ponies, Clerinel would be there after the war”
To me, the interest stems from getting an insight into a historical period. Even though we might be uncomfortable with the values that are displayed, they are typical of the time and interesting to read, with the added guidance of hindsight and social and political awareness. As a children’s book, there are other, more recent books that are of greater value, both as historical documents and as literature.
3/10 – my interest was simply not sustained through the book.