Monday, July 28, 2008

The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson

Ibbotson, Eva. The Dragonfly Pool. Dutton, 2008
Available September 4.

11-year-old Tally has received a scholarship to attend free-spirited Delderton Hall, an “experimental” boarding school in Devon, and though she doesn’t want to leave her loving father, London in 1939 is not a very secure place to be. As it turns out, she thrives there (clothing and classes are optional and the dance instructor exhorts the students to be forks or pillows - sounds a bit like my younger daughter's Waldorf-influenced school. Except for the first two items.).
When the (fictional) country of Bergania, whose king has refused to let Hitler’s armies march through his land, announces an international children’s folk-dancing festival, Tally convinces her school to take part. During the festival, the king is assassinated, and Tally and her friends and teachers rescue 12-year-old Prince Karil and smuggle him to England, where he must live virtually imprisoned by his well-born relatives, until he manages to escape and is united with his Delderton Hall friends again.
Tally has a bit of Sara Crewe of A Little Princess about her; although her father is still alive, she is a singularly compassionate and generous person, well-liked by almost all who meet her; luckily, her worries and occasional imperfections make her wisdom lovely rather than irritating. Prince Karil and several adults receive meticulous and fascinating character development, but many characters remain rather one-dimensional, known mainly by one or two eccentric traits (a girl with allergies, a boy from Africa). The unsympathetic characters, and in particular Karil’s awful London-based relatives, come across as ludicrous cartoons, so unremittingly negative is their depiction.
Although the battle between good and evil is painted with a broad brush, Ibbotson treats most issues with a wise, subtle, and always humorous touch; as always, her writing is sublime and her tone is impeccable. The epilogue, taking place six years later, is most satisfying and will have readers giggling through their tears. The epitaph of a tiny dog (and pivotal character) on the last page is both ridiculous and hilarious - and it ensures that any lingering feelings that this book had too earnest a tone at times are swept away.
Approximately grades 4 to 7.

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