Today, I'm happy to bring you another guest review. This time around, the subject is The Wind on the Moon by Eric Linklater, illustrated by Nicolas Bentley, a finalist for the 1945 Retro Hugo Award in the Best Novel category. So I hand over to Don Briago to share his thoughts on The Mad Scientist.
When I was a boy there were two types of children's books, the ones that grown-ups insisted were good for us, and the ones we actually enjoyed. The first group were written by old fuddy-duddies who had completely forgotten what it was like to be a kid, and usually delivered a moral such as "Respect your elders." The second group were written by irreverent, irresponsible scalawags who whispered into our ears, “Aren't grown-ups stupid and boring? All they do is talk about dull junk like income tax and real estate and never do anything cool, such as hopping around like a kangaroo. They hate fun!" In this way Roald Dahl (for example) convinced millions of kids that he was One Of Us, much to his profit.
Eric Linklater’s The Wind on the Moon falls pretty neatly into that amoral, Lewis Carroll tradition of English nonsense. The Alice-like protagonists are the sisters Dinah and Dorinda, who live in the village Midmeddlecum. They are neither malicious or mischievous but in their quest for fun they admit that “when we think we are behaving well, some grown-up person says we are really quite bad. It’s difficult to tell which is which.” When their father announces that he’s going away for a year they promise to be good; needless to say, they get into all kinds of trouble. One of their hijinks leads to a ridiculous trial in which the judge sentences the jury to prison, the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time.
The story proper begins when Dinah’s invisible friend Mrs. Grimble offers to transform the girls into any animal they want with a magic potion. Their decision to become kangaroos is an accurate example of pragmatic kid-logic. The girls reason that kangaroos, in addition to being fun, are the most practical animals, since they have built-in handbags - their pouches. After an ecstatic session of leaping around the village, they’re lassoed and thrown into the cages of the local zoo. There the girls befriend the other animals, all of them wonderfully silly.
Everyone we meet is silly. With unflagging invention, whimsical characters keep popping up, maintaining the novel’s cosy atmosphere. Even the villain, Count Hulagu Bloot, an infantile sadist who shares Dorinda’s addiction to peppermint creams, is too absurd to be scary. Although he locks their father in a Ruritanian dungeon and finds the wailing of his prisoners as soothing as a lullaby, the reader never worries much about the safety of our heroines. It’s not that kind of story.
It’s also not perfect. Here and there Linklater tries to tug our heart strings and, worse, point up a moral. He doesn’t come close to saying “Respect your elders” but in weaker moments he threatens to turn homiletic. And I was disappointed that he didn’t devote more space to my favorite character, a dim-witted giraffe at the zoo who fancies himself a Sherlock Holmes. But maybe that would have been too much of a good thing.
|Cover of the Dutch edition from 1957|
The Wind on the Moon was a very pleasant surprise for me. I went into it completely blind, knowing nothing about the author or the novel. I have since learned that Linklater was a quite popular Scottish novelist and historian in his day, though mostly unread now. Of the many volumes he published, only three were children's books. I will definitely be sampling more of Linklater’s bibliography. I’m not sure Wind has a chance of winning a Retro Hugo, but I’m grateful to the voters for putting this gem on the ballot.
Many thanks to Don Briago for this great review of The Wind on the Moon, which was a truly pleasant surprise on the Retro Hugo ballot.