on 25 November 2000
What first drew me to this novel was the fact that Susan Cooper is from my hometown of Slough. When I was growing up in Shaggy Calf Lane in the Seventies, the bottom of our garden still had a rusting Anderson shelter that my siblings and I never really bothered to explore. Along with the coal cellar, it seemed a part of everyday life. But times change. I still remember having a coal boiler, which went out of use as the years passed. The Anderson shelter was just a very familiar object. Much more vivid were the stories told by my great grandmother of having to dive under a kitchen table as she heard a bomb whistle to earth. Our Anderson shelter was guarded by brambles, impossible to enter, and quite uninviting.
I hadn't thought of that Anderson shelter for years until I read 'Dawn of Fear'. Very early on in the book, Cooper also introduces to us the Morrison shelter, which was designed to live under your kitchen table. However, Derek's family has use of the more famous, external Anderson shelter. Very vivid are the scenes where Derek and his family take to its cover. In one telling moment, Derek's mother says that they should stop talking lest they wake up Derek's baby brother - the little boy has already learnt to take as normal the sound of air raid sirens and bombs. During the less frantic cold war, I seem to recall hearing those chilling notes being tested once or twice. At first, it seems as though Cooper is writing this novel very much for a younger audience than her 'Dark is Rising' sequence. However, there is also much to interest the more mature reader. Particularly significant is the adults' agonising over the upbringing of their children during a war. They want their children to act with caution, but they don't want them to live in fear. But the war has already changed their lives, whether it is in the collection of shrapnel, or the playing of imaginary wargames.
However, Derek and his friends seem to be far more interested in the act of creating their own camp. Their inspiration is drawn from the ancient fortifications of the Chilterns and the Thames Valley. To Derek and his friends, it's just going to be a secret camp. But the role of such forts in the past comes to haunt them as everything they have built is threatened. Together, Derek and his friends decide to retaliate and embark on nothing less than a territorial war with a rival gang. Cooper cleverly juxtaposes this conflict against the real war. How easy it is to take up arms against your 'neighbours'. Like the real war, the rival gang seems to have way more resources and bodies to call upon, and in the shocking demise of the cat, they show early signs of psychopathic tendencies. If you're able and willing to harm an animal, current thinking goes, then you're not far from harming people.
Derek's gang has a hero of sorts in Tom Hicks. He's an older boy who's just signed up in the Merchant Navy just because they can take people younger. Here, Susan Cooper's historical research shines subtly through. Tom Hicks signs up even though he knows that the Merchant Navy is by far the most hazardous service, and where fatalities are high. Cooper is also subtle in her suggestion that all the boys will be touched by death: Geoffrey proudly mentions that his uncle is serving on the destroyer, HMS Hood, little knowing, as we do, that this ship and most of her crew are doomed. Tom also talks a great deal about Churchill's Dunkirk speech. But there's also a quote from Queen Victoria: "We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat. They do not speak." The Empress, of course, was referring to a far less noble British cause: the war for Boer gold in South Africa, where we unfortunately invented the concentration camp. Both sides, Cooper seems to be suggesting, have blood on their hands.
To me, it seems as though a part of this world has vanished for good. When nettles sting Derek, Peter suggests that he rubs a dock leaf on the rash to alleviate the pain. That sort of knowledge about the natural world was practically lost to my generation. If I'd known about dock leaves, I might have saved myself a great deal of pain as a kid. It's hard to say where exactly in Slough Cooper has set her story. I can't help but think of Elliman Avenue. Then again, that was fairly close to my own childhood home. So to me, the world of Susan Cooper's novel is a familiar place, but there are a number of extraordinary revelations. This may be a children's novel, but the conclusion shows signs of a more adult view of the world all too soon.