book reviews by Althea

Heartsease – Peter Dickinson ***

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The Apocalypse! Now! With English Children on Ponies!

Five years after the Changes affected England, the new way of life seems almost normal to children who were very young when the shift occurred. Margaret rarely thinks about how things used to be, and she shares the antipathy to and suspicion of technology and machines that has come over Britain, although she doesn’t feel it as strongly as some do.

When the foreign ‘witch’ (actually an American intelligence agent) that her village stoned turns out to be still alive, Margaret and her brother Jonathan decide to rescue him in secret. Otto is in bad shape and partially paralyzed, but with the help of the woman who’s been working for the family as a servant, Lucy, and her mentally-disabled brother Tim, a conspiracy to save Otto and get him back to his people unfolds.

In many ways, the way the story progresses, with a focus on young people independently using their ingenuity to solve problems, especially problems involving ponies and boats (the rescue plan involves a getaway in a vintage tugboat), the book reads a bit like a darker, post-apocalyptic ‘Swallows and Amazons.’

The authorial standpoint on the events depicted in the book is… odd. I can’t quite put my finger on it. On the one hand, this new England, yanked back into a pre-Industrial era, is horrific. It is one where strangers are stoned to death without question; where children fear, with justification, that their own families will kill them if they are caught breaking the rules, where people truly believe they’re doing something charitable by keeping a mentally-disabled person in a shed like an animal.

Our main characters clearly see all these things as wrong – but they’re awfully, and inexplicably, willing to forgive people their faults and try to see the best in them. Even the nasty village ‘witch-hunter’ who causes people’s deaths and psychologically terrorizes their beloved aunt, is portrayed sort of like a cranky but lovable neighbor.

At the same time, while the faults of this society are noted, but to a degree, minimized, we have the portrayal of Jonathan, who’s mechanically inclined and is attracted, rather than repulsed by technology (It seems the Changes just haven’t affected him for some unknown reason). While Jonathan is bright, ingenious and has a moral compass, at the same time he’s portrayed as being quite uncaring and callous toward living things, especially animals.

It’s an interesting dichotomy that’s set up, but I don’t think the book uses or explores it as well as it could have. An opportunity to give the reader an outside viewpoint is missed, by giving the American Otto very little dialogue. And I felt like the ending was rather a cop-out (and for that matter, nearly the same cop-out that Dickinson uses in ‘The Devil’s Children.’)

<spoiler>At the end, Margaret, who was always extremely reluctant to escape to America with Otto and the rest of them, decides, in a dramatic scene, to return to her home with her pony – even though she feared being killed for what she had done. Conveniently, she finds, once she arrives home, that with the death of the witch-hunter, everyone is much more mild and willing to forgive – it was just ‘something [the witch-hunter] brought out in us.’ This completely avoids having to deal with the anticipated consequences of Margaret’s choice.

It’s just like at the end of The Devil’s Children, after the strict and power-hungry leader of the village is killed and the village is re-taken from a gang of thugs, suddenly all the formerly xenophobic villagers find themselves more willing to accept their neighbors.

Now, this is clearly intentional. Dickinson seems to be saying that without a misled and violent leader swaying people’s minds, cooler heads might prevail. However, I’m still not sure that the events as shown in these books fully bolster that statement. I felt the books are too quick to shift the culpability for truly horrific actions onto others. The book uses the Changes (a possibly magical and inexplicable outside influence) as a device to say that people may not be fully responsible for their own actions – and to me, that puts the whole narrative on a weird and shifting footing.

I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing – there’s a lot of food for thought here, and it’s very refreshing to see complex issues without easy answers in a book intended for young people. Too many books published today lack anything of the sort. However, I still feel that the book could have done a bit more with these issues.

A re-read – I read and enjoyed this book more than once as a child, but long enough ago that I remembered few of the details.


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