Sunday, November 05, 2006

Dawn of Fear - Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper's Dawn of Fear is a fictionalised autobiographical account of what it's like to be a child in WW2. The only real fictionalisation, however, is that the main character of the story is a boy, rather than a girl.

The story is told from the point of view of Derek and his best friend Peter, and their friend Geoffrey, and recounts how they don't take the war very seriously for quite some time. When the air raid siren goes off whilst they are at school, the three boys are far more interested in watching the planes dogfighting overhead, than in getting into the air raid shelter ! So used are the children to the air raids that at one moment, as they are sheltering in the Anderson hut, Derek's mother says that they should stop talking lest they wake up Derek's baby brother, Hugh - the little boy has already learned to sleep through the sound of air raid sirens and bombs, but talking is less normal. It's interesting to see the adults' agonising over the upbringing of their children during the war. Derek's parents clearly want their children to act with caution, but they don't want them to live in fear either.

There's a moment when the family are making their way into the Anderson one night when a raid has already started. Derek is again watching the sky and his father has to roughly grab him and push him into the shelter. As the planes begin bombing the street Derek realises

The guns everywhere were hammering the sky in an uneven thunder, and close together there were several great blasting crashes as more bombs fell. [...] Derek sat down suddenly on the bottom bunk and burst into tears.
His father say down beside him and held him tightly. "I'm sorry, Derry. Are you all right?"
Miserably Derek nodded, unable to speak for the sobs that were sending his chest up into his throat. He pressed his head into his father's arm and clutched at his hand.

It's at this point that the huge danger they are all in becomes real to Derek. But being young, he soon gets over it. Derek and his friends are, for the most part, more interested in the act of creating their own camp, inspired by the ancient fortifications of the Chiltern Hills and the Thames Valley. To Derek and his friends, it's just a secret camp, but gradually the role of such forts in the past comes to haunt them as everything they have built is threatened, then destroyed by a gang of children from another street who had objected to Derek, Peter and Geoffrey stopping them from hurting a cat. After their long hours spent building the camp, they take an older boy named Tommy, who is shortly joining the Merchant Navy, (which takes boys younger than the regular Navy, or the Army or Air Force) to see it. When they arrive at the camp however, David Wiggs and his friends have utterly destroyed the camp, and left a "calling card", so that Derek and the others know who was responsible.

Outraged, they wonder how to get their own back, and Tommy comes up with a plan to ambush the gang in a nearby field. Derek and his friends carry out their ambush and the "enemy" is routed, until finally Tommy Hicks and David's older brother, Johnny, whom Tommy hates as a shirker, engage in a one-on-one fight. Tommy Hicks has signed up with the Merchant Navy, even though he knows this is by far the most hazardous service, as the fatalities are highest amongst its men. Tommy believes that Johnny, on the other hand, engages in black market profiteering, so their fight is not only about the destruction of Derek, Peter and Geoffrey's camp, but also about bravery and doing one's duty during a war.

Cooper is quite subtle in her suggestion that all the boys will be touched by death: Geoffrey proudly tells Tommy that his uncle is serving on the destroyer, HMS Hood, little knowing, as her readers do, that this ship and most of her crew are doomed. Tommy also talks a great deal about Churchill's Dunkirk speech; he makes it quite clear that he expects the boys to know exactly what Churchill said; he, himself, can recite it.

When death finally comes to Derek's group, it is not Tommy who is killed. I won't tell you who dies or how they died - it was a shock to me and very moving. I freely admit that I wept through the final chapter - this close to Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, I was remembering the many young men who had died in the First World War, as well as those who gave or lost their lives in the Second World War.


Camille said...

I heard Cooper speak in April 2006. She mentioned that she lived through the Blitz and to this day, loud bangs or noises scare her to death.

I immediately thought of this book as she discussed her noise phobias.

Michele said...

Yes, I knew of Cooper's experience of the Blitz from Charlie Butler's excellent book, Four British Fntasists (about which I cannot rave often enough !) - and I can easily understand her phobia of loud noises !