A school story, a Ruritanian adventure, a story rich in nature, a story about friendship and about family, about World War II and standing up to the Nazis, and also about freedom—The Dragonfly Pool (2008) is all of these—a strange seeming combination perhaps, but one that works rather well.
In The Dragonfly Pool, we meet Talitha Hamilton or Tally, a twelve-year-old being brought up by her father, a talented doctor who has chosen to work with poorer patients, and his two sisters, Aunt Hester and Aunt May, after her mother’s death just after she is born. Tally is being sent to a boarding school Delderton Hall on a scholarship, at the recommendation of one of Dr Hamilton’s patients, even though neither the doctor, nor the aunts, and nor indeed anyone in the neighbourhood wants her to go but with the war looming, it seems the most sensible decision. Tally too is reluctant, even more so when her richer cousins (for Dr Hamilton’s brother practices with wealthy patients and has done well for himself) begin to tell her about all the things she would need in a ‘proper’ boarding school. But Delderton Hall is none of that, a progressive school with rather Bohemian teachers (including her tutor Matteo with his biology lessons that begin at 4 am) and an interesting approach to lessons, Tally finds she loves the place instantly, and everything that goes on in it.
Then on a trip to the village with a friend to watch a film, Tally comes across an interesting European kingdom, Bergania, whose King is one of the few standing up to Hitler, and feels an immediate connection, besides admiration for the King. And as circumstances would have it, the school receives an invitation to participate in a folk dance competition in Bergania, and Tally makes sure a team is ready to go. But Bergania is facing serious trouble, and the King and his son, young prince Karil are in danger. But what role do Tally and her friends end up playing? Do they help the Berganians?
This is rather a difficult story to summarise, since so much happens in it. Yet, as I said, all of it somehow works together and turns out rather wonderfully too. The Dragonfly Pool is the first of Eva Ibbotson’s books that I’ve read that is outside the fantasy realm, and as with her books that have fantasy elements, this too explores themes that are autobiographical and those close to her heart but does so more directly than the fantasy titles.
To start with, there is Delderton Hall, a school which I thought was so Bohemian that it had to be fictional, but it turns out as Ibbotson tells us in her note, it is based on a school she herself actually attended. It is certainly an intriguing place, and I do love their approach to lessons and the generally relaxed atmosphere, even if some things felt too much for my comfort level.
Another typical theme for Ibbotson that stands out in the book is of course nature; whether it is simply in Delderton’s beautiful surroundings (where everything grows from primroses and violets to campions and foxgloves—depending on the season of course—where a pair of otters live in the river, kingfishers skim the water and russet Devon cows wander the fields), or on the biology lessons with Matteo which invariably involve nature walks, or the dragonfly pool of the title in Bergania, her love for it shines all through.
But really when we look at the story or interwoven stories that the book explores, what lies at its heart, and which reflects Ibbotson’s own experiences having had to escape her home Austria with her family and emigrate to England when still a child, is that of freedom. And the book brings it up in different contexts. On a broader plane there is the freedom of people as a whole, and the need to prevent regimes like that of the Nazis or fascists from gaining power. But it also talks of freedom at a personal level—to be able to learn, to explore, to make friends, to become what you wish without being tied by senseless systems or traditions. At the same time, we are reminded that it is also not about causing others distress or inconvenience.
And we explore these themes through the stories of very likeable characters, whether it is Tally and her family, or the students and teachers at Delderton, who at times take on rather different roles that we expect, or Karil and his father. Then there are the villains of the piece, some who are out to cause our characters real physical harm, but also others who seem to mean well (by their own standards) but impact our characters’ (mostly, Karil’s) well-being all the same. There is adventure of course, misunderstandings, and also some very real dangers and it is fun to see how Tally and her friends come through it all.
A lovely and enjoyable read over all.
p.s. The Dragonfly Pool of the title has a small role to play, a place of peace and of just being away from the complications of everyday life, but it turns out largely symbolic though with a parallel in the pond near the school at Delderton