Keith, the lawyer's on, and David the ultra-bright (and sometimes scathingly so) David the doctor's son unearth Nellie Jack John, a drummer boy who has been underground in a time-shift for the last two hundred years. Mysterious events happen in their Northern moorland town on the edge of Westmoreland.
David is the hero, in many ways, but he is a bit too wonderful. The story is seen mostly from the perspective of Keith, the hanger on and admirer, and this is a strength because it enables the portrait of David to be drawn. Furthermore, it is Keith who grows and learns and develops through the story; he is the true protagonist. And why shouldn't the hero be the one who is overshadowed?
It was first published in 1956 and the two boys enjoy a privileged middle-class background. I found it difficult to tell their ages. They are both at school and the drummer boy, who would probably have joined up at about the age of fourteen, is about their size (and people were smaller two hundred years ago) and that would suggest they are in their early teens. But David is not only clever (he translates Horace's Odes and knows all sorts of things) but he is also wise well beyond his years, even before his adventures:
- "It's a hire-purchase thought ... You think of it and buy it, and pay for it all the rest of your life." (1.5)
- The Horatian ode he translates is #1.5 which starts: "Quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa perfusus liquidis urget odoribus, grato, Pyrrha, sub antro" (1.7) which Google translates as "What slender boy in a rose with liquid odors, Pyrrha, cave." My attempt: "Which slender boy, drenched in the liquid perfume of many roses, entreats you, Pyrrha, in your cave." Apart from showing that he can study Latin (as can David), why has the author placed this quotation in a children's book?
The book starts slowly, with several paragraphs about blackberry picking; modern stories try to go for the hook in the first few pages. One of its strengths is its observation:
- "It was not a wind that closed eyes against specks and grit, but it did cover gutter water from washed pavements with a film of particles, and it made dogs look sideways at the corners of houses." (1.4)
- "It was not pure nervousness but a sort of thin terror; something that went round inside them like some yellow acid, touching tender membranes and making inward parts recoil and tremble." (2.3)
- "Both boys stopped. They had to, because their feet could not be lifted from the ground. Their muscles had tightened in some way that took all mobility from them." (2.3)
- "The ground itself was dry and silent. When it is wet it always speaks." (3.3)
- "Cigarette smoke lying like grey knitting round him in the still air." (3.4)
Another of the book's strengths is the very human predicament of the drummer boy who emerges into a world two hundred years after his time:
- "He realized that no one could really imagine that there was a future longer than a lifetime, a future with no one in it you knew. From here and now time ahead was a hazy idea. It existed, yes, but completely without detail. Time went on, but straight into a wall. You could not even see a day ahead. Not to be here, now, was to be dead. The only thing you could hold on to at all was the actual present." (1.6)
- "As you get older it is harder to know what to wish: a lot of wishing seems only selfish." (2.2)
- "He understood, now that his face was put against it, ... that the lost places are in this world and belong to the people in it and are all that they have to call home." (3.4)
A beautifully written book, especially lyrical about the countryside. It deals with the huge theme of loss. It manages to make supernatural events appear real by describing them in remorseless detail and embedding them in an utterly mundane everyday. Its only flaw is in the two heroes. They are, perhaps, of their time: precocious intellectually and with the capacity to understand emotions but hugely underdeveloped in other ways: neither has the least hint of any sexual interest in either girls or boys. I think modern readers would find these two lads very hard to relate to. The social setting is also of its time. It is also quite slow to get going and somewhat patchy in its narrative: a major character seems to be abandoned about a quarter of the way through; the chronology, though always linear, travels at very different speeds in different parts; the major turning point arrives about two-thirds of the way through.