The Dragonfly Pool
I’ve heard good things before about Eva Ibbotson, and I am partial to tales set during World War II, so I thought The Dragonfly Pool looked like fun. For the most part it was.
Tally Hamilton is a special girl, the kind who likes to help, who cares for others, and who sees what could be clearer than what is. She is, fortunately or unfortunately, living at a time when those qualities will be needed more than ever: at the cusp of World War II. Because London is preparing for war and the possibility of being a bomb target, Tally’s father is more receptive than he would be ordinarily when a chance to send Tally to boarding school (on scholarship) is offered him. Tally doesn’t want to leave her friends behind, but she sees the fear in her father’s eyes and does as she is told.
Delderton is not like the typical boarding school. It’s a progressive school, without uniforms, without discipline, without hazing. Its goal is to help children learn to love learning and develop their natural gifts. Tally has only to arrive to begin thriving there. As a bonus there are lots of lonely or unorganized people for Tally to take under her wing at Delderton. When one day at the movie theater Tally learns about the brave king of Bergania who is defying the Nazis, she yearns to go there. And within weeks she has her chance. Bergania is hosting an international folk dancing festival, and Tally manages to form a dance troupe to participate. But neither Tally nor the Berganian monarchy can understand the rage of the storm that will overtake Europe, or that each will be swept up in its blast…
This novel is roughly divided in three parts: Tally’s boarding school introduction; the international folk dancing festival, in which Tally finds herself making friends with the young Prince Karil of Bergania; and Tally’s return to England. Personally I found the domesticity of the first third the most appealing, but I suspect young readers will be more taken with the action and drama in the second and third parts.
Tally is a nice character, a good and kind girl, and will be easy for children to like. She is not amazingly complex in her goodness, however. Prince Karil, who resents the restrictions of royal life, is easier to identify with. The rest of the characters fall into a spectrum ranging from good to bad, with the good being very good and the bad being nasty in an almost comic fashion. The Nazis in particular come across as buffoons: evil men who can’t quite accomplish any of the evil they are assigned. They seem unrelated to the men who at that point in history were systematically murdering any and all of the Polish professors, politicians, writers, and priests they could get their hands on. The secondary baddies are much less evil – only selfish or repressed – but they affect the book’s plot as much or more as the Nazis.
Basically this is a good vs. evil tale, and readers will cheer when the good prevails, even when it seems to prevail rather coincidentally. The book also has a strong democratic sensibility which works out well for our young protagonists.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The Dragonfly Pool to my young niece and nephew as an adventure story equally appealing to girls and boys. As an adult, however, I could have wished for less of a fantastical read, one that focused less on what should have happened during World War II and more on what did in fact happen during that fateful period of history.