I am defining political fiction as fiction about conflict within a society, or between societies. Thus for me the genre includes not only war, revolution, terrorism, and the persecution of minorities, but also economic and social issues, such as the struggle of the poor for work and fair pay, the fight for religious freedom, and campaigns against slavery and industrial pollution.
In an article published in the Daily Mail, May 4, 1984, Roald Dahl implied that political fiction was something new in children’s literature: `The world of children’s literature is being invaded by authors with axes to grind and causes to advance.’ But if we look at the earliest children’s books, we find propagandist tracts; and such moralistic works as Sandford and Merton, and The Fairchild Family. Some Victorian classics of a political nature are still read today: The Water-Babies; Westward Ho!; Huckleberry Finn and Black Beauty; while young people have also read with enjoyment political books not written specifically for them, like Pilgrim’s Progress. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the novels of Dickens and Scott.
Dahl declares: `I’m not sure that kind of thing has gone on even in totalitarian societies.’ This is ridiculous, when we consider the anti-semitic propaganda offered to children under Hitler’s régime, and the control of children’s literature by state publishing houses in certain countries today. By contrast British writers enjoy great freedom, for example to advocate conscientious objection in wartime (A Long Way To Go); or to criticise the government and police force (Piggy in the Middle, Rainbows of the Gutter). If much contemporary political fiction seems controversial, it is written to redress the balance, as a reaction against the political atmosphere pervading the media and children’s comics.
For this list I have selected books written after 1945, not all, pace Dahl, recently published, as you will see. Date of first publication is given after each title. Details are of current editions. I have excluded books which seem to me propagandist, or just unsuccessful as fiction.
To save space I have not given SBNs for every single title mentioned, and not at all when annotating a group of three or more titles.
Part 1: Stories with historical settings up to the 1930s
Early History – 18th Century
Shout against the Wind – (1970)
Mary Ray, Faber, 1980, 0 571 11489 X, o.p.
The Dorian invasion of Greece in about 1200 B.C. put an end to the Homeric Bronze Age culture. Three palace servants escape from the inevitable rape and pillage, but pity forces them to break their flight in order to rescue first a crippled soldier, and then an abandoned baby. Eventually the refugees find a hidden valley where they can settle and learn to farm the land.
Mary Ray’s novels of the Ancient World always have a political and religious dimension. Her 5-novel Roman Empire sequence describes the secret growth of Christianity in the 1st century A.D., and explores resistance to Roman rule in Greece, Palestine and Britain. At present rather a minority taste, she could be far better known.
Song for a Dark Queen – (1978)
Rosemary Sutcliff, Pelham Books, 0 7207 1060 X, £3.75 Knight, 0 340 24864 5, £1.25
This is the story of Boudicca’s rebellion against the Romans, told in Sutcliff’s poetic, Celtic-flavoured prose. Guided by the Mother Goddess, the Queen wins several battles and sacks Camulodunum (Colchester) and Londinium, but eventually loses to the professional Roman army. Another book in which Sutcliff takes the side of the Celts against the Romans is The Mark of the Horse Lord (Puffin), set in Scotland beyond the Wall. Discreet but pleasing sexual innuendo marks these out for teenage readers.
Other Award 1978.
Dawn Wind – (1961)
Rosemary Sutcliff, Puffin, 0 14 03.1223 4, £1.95
In her `dolphin ring’ sequence Rosemary Sutcliff traces the line of a Roman family who settle in Britain, from The Eagle of the Ninth, through Arthurian times in The Lantern-Bearers and Sword at Sunset, to resistance against the Normans in The Shield-Ring. Dawn Wind begins with the Saxon conquest of Britain. Young Owain from Wales serves the Saxons as a thrall, and earns his freedom in time to witness St. Augustine’s arrival in Kent. Sutcliff argues that conversion of the pagan Saxons to Christianity brought about reconciliation between them and the conquered Britons (who were already Christians).
Dawn Wind is now a more controversial book than when first published. Present concerns with possible racism have made the terms `light’ and `dark’ more controversial: and the course of history has also rendered questionable the optimistic view that converting a nation to Christianity puts an end to intolerance and barbarism.
The Mantlemass Chronicles – (1970-81)
Barbara Willard, Kestrel and Puffin
One of the landmarks of the Seventies, though somewhat under-rated by the new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, was Willard’s cycle of novels about the rise and fall of the Medleys of Mantlemass from the death of Richard III to the English Civil War. Each novel sets romance and family life against a background of political unrest. In A Cold Wind Blowing Piers Medley marries a stranger, Isabella, but their love is doomed because she is an ex-nun made homeless by the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Willard’s series is also notable for its attention to the details of economic and social life, particularly the iron-working industry of Ashdown Forest, and its use of local dialect.
The Morten Trilogy – (1974-77)
Robert Leeson, Collins and Fontana Lions
Leeson’s trilogy set in Tudor and Stuart times, ‘Maroon Boy, Bess and The White Horse, provides a fresh look at a period so often represented in children’s fiction by tales of the Elizabethan playhouse, the Spanish Armada, and Royalist heroes. Leeson explores the lives of Black slaves, women, and the working-class, featuring in each book a central character who rebels against society’s conventions. Note also the slightly archaic language used for the dialogue – worlds away from Walter Scott! ‘Maroon Boy, about Matthew Morten’s decision to free a cargo of African slaves, is probably more accessible to younger readers than the other two, especially The White Horse with its detailed analysis of Parliamentarian politics.
Children of the Book – (1982)
Peter Carter, OUP, 0 19 271456 2, £6.95
This epic novel commemorates the 300th anniversary of the Siege of Vienna by the Turks and its relief by the Poles, a turning-point in European history. The narrative shifts between three young people, a professional Turkish soldier, a volunteer Pole, and a Viennese girl. Only the girl survives – the two soldiers kill one another in the final battle. Carter’s skill is evident in the way we come to sympathise with both sides. There is only one villain: the Turkish Grand Vizier who masterminded the invasion. A book for experienced readers. Young Observer/Rank Fiction Prize 1983
The Witch of Blackbird Pond – (1960)
Elizabeth George Speare, Gollancz, 0 575 00225 5, £4.95; Puffin. 1967, 0 14 03.0327 8, £1.25
Kit Tyler shocks the staid Connecticut Puritan community in which she comes to live, by her unconventional behaviour. Her skill in swimming, her fancy clothes, her friendship with an eccentric Quaker widow. all arouse jealousy. When fever spreads through the town, she and the Quaker are accused of witchcraft, but the truth prevails in a dramatic courtroom scene. The book is set in the 1680’s, with the independent New Englanders already showing irritation at British rule. Newbery Medal, 1959.
19th and 20th Century
The Green Bough of Liberty – (1979)
David Rees, Dobson, 0 234 72187 1
Three brothers. Garret, Billy and Ned Byrne, are involved in the 1798 Irish rebellion. Although sympathising with the Irish cause, Rees shows that both sides committed atrocities. The Irish army of volunteers was unprepared for war and undisciplined, and the British army took savage reprisals on civilians. We identify with Ned, whose fantasies about glory in victory are soon destroyed, and who is revolted by the reality of killing a fellow human being. This book is true to history. and shows the two sides of human nature involved in war: idealism and violence. Other Award 1980.
The Black Lamp – (1973)
Peter Carter, OUP, 0 19 271356 6, £3.25; (Archway Novels, OUP), 0 19 271497 X, £1.95 non-net
Daniel Cregg is the son of a Lancashire handloom-weaver, in the early 19th century when machines threatened the traditional family way of life. Persuaded by the Radical, Samuel Bamford, they join the march to Manchester to demand Parliamentary Reform. The rally is broken up by the Yeoman Cavalry, and goes down in history as the Peterloo massacre of 1819. Daniel survives, and rescues his younger sister who has been kidnapped to work in a cotton-mill. To get his living afterwards. Daniel has to find work at the new machines. Carter’s skill in bringing history to life is especially impressive when we look at his immediate source. E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working-class (from which Carter got the name ‘The Black Lamp’ for a secret political society of working-men).
(See also Thimbles, David Wiseman (1983). Kestrel).
Twopence a Tub – (1975)
Susan Price, Faber, 0 571 10624 2, £2.95
Local history and family memories provided the story of the Dudley miners’ strike for a rise from a penny to twopence per tub of coal. The author draws harsh distinctions between the miners in their squalor and the rich in their overfed luxury, and illustrates the dilemma of the strikebreakers. The strikers lose their fight, and wages are cut to three-farthings a tub. The central character, Jek, will not escape the pit, and Sunday meetings with his girl are all he can look forward to. Note the effective use of Black Country speech-patterns to suggest the locality and period.
Other Award, 1975.
A Candle in the Dark – (1974)
Robert Swindells, Knight, 0 340 32098 2, £1.25
Jimmy Booth, a parish orphan, is apprenticed to a collier and suffers the horrors of pit life. He and his pit friend Joe save the life of a social reformer who has been kidnapped and imprisoned down the pit. There is a pit fall and Jimmy dies, but Joe will carry on his memory as the `candle in the dark’. With its expressive illustrations by Gareth Floyd, it is a good book for young readers, though if used in class, teachers should handle Jimmy’s death carefully.
Sixty Five – (1960)
V. S. Reid, Longman Caribbean Horizons, 0 582 76573 0, £1.60
In 1865 many Jamaicans under Deacon Paul Bogle rebelled against unjust taxes and biassed judges. A peaceful show of force turns into a massacre of government officials, and the English Redcoats turn out to quell the rebellion. The narrator is Japheth, a 12-year-old, whose grandfather, a seasoned soldier, opts out of the fighting and tries to give Bogle good advice – which he does not follow. An excellent guide to an important part of Caribbean history, by a Jamaican author. It is an easy read, and there is a map.
The Bonny Pit Laddie – (1960)
Frederick Grice, Puffin, 0 14 03.1190 4, £1.25
Archway Novels, OUP, 0 19 271498 8, £1.95
In this faithful reconstruction of Durham pit life around 1900, young Dick grows up, and witnesses a strike and the ensuing evictions.
The family camps out on the common before giving in to the hated owner. Dick’s father is sacked and Dick, aged 12, must go down the pit to support the family. When the pit caves in, Dick helps the miners escape. Eventually his intellectual talents are recognised and he becomes a chemist’s apprentice.
In 1977 Grice was given a special commendation by the Other Award Committee for the body of his work. It is a pity that so many are out of print: look for Young Tom Sawbones and Nine Days’ Wonder in the libraries.
A Question of Courage – (1975)
Marjorie Darke, Fontana Lions, 0 00 671212 6, £1.25
A Long Way to Go – (1978)
Marjorie Dark, Kestrel, 0 7226 5485 5, £4.95;
Puffin Plus, 0 14 03.1359 1, £1.50
These are the central two novels of the quartet which begins with The First of Midnight (see BfK 22), and ends with Comeback. A Question of Courage is the story of Emily Palmer, a working-class girl who joins the Suffragette Movement and experiences force-feeding in prison and a dangerous kick from a police-horse.
In A Long Way to Go, Emily meets Bella Knight, descendant of Midnight the boxer. Emily and Bella work in a munitions factory. Luke, Bella’s twin brother, is conscripted for World War I, but doesn’t want to fight, so goes on the run. The considerable political content: conscientious objection, women’s rights, racial prejudice – does not swamp the book’s concern with personal relationships, between Emily and Bella, and Bella and Luke, and with Luke’s quest for freedom and an artist’s career.
Days of Terror – (1979)
Barbara Smucker, Puffin, 0 14 03.1306 0, 95p
This is the historically-researched story of the German Mennonite community which had been settled in Russia for over a century, until the First World War. After the Russian Revolution, religious and political persecution drove them to emigrate to Canada. The book reflects the universal problem where ethnic groups maintain their separateness, and if newcomers prosper, they are envied by `natives’ for their wealth, and often (though not in this case) hated for their superior political power. Barbara Smucker has also written Underground to Canada (Puffin) about two Black slave girls who escape to the North on the ‘underground railway’.
Dockie – (1972)
Martin Ballard, Kestrel, 0 7226 5498 7, £4.95;
Fontana Lions, 0 00 672228 8, £1
Heinemann New Windmills, 0 435 12270 3, £1.70
At 14 Moggy Harris leaves school to work in the East End Docks. He is a natural fighter, and begins to box in his spare time in the hope of a better career. We read of the competition for work by the dockers who crowd the gates each morning, the need to bribe the supervisors in the pubs the night before, and the dock strike when Moggy’s father becomes a black-leg in order to pay the midwife to deliver his wife’s new baby. But this is not depressing, as the story is told through Moggy’s eyes, hopeful that he may win a better life for himself.
Part 2 of Jessica Yates‘ list will include books with historical settings after the Thirties,fantasy, science fiction and picture books.