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The Devil's Children

Style: Good

Attitude: Unobjectionable → Positive

In Brief: Using a slightly fantastic near-future to highlight the differences and similarities between different races, and our dependence on technology. Dignity and strong family bonds of the Sikhs; Quiet friendship of Gopal & Ajeet with Nicky; Positive place for older relatives within the community

Cover of The Devil's Children

Author: Peter Dickinson

Series: The Changes

Publisher: Puffin

Published in: 1970

Age Range: Pre Teens

Period: Contemporary

Setting: Rural Surrey

Genres:  Coping withFantasy


Characters:

  • Nicola Gore is the third-person narrator, a 12-year-old girl who has had to fend for herself in a near-deserted London. Taking her chance when a group of Sikhs passes by, she joins them and learns to appreciate their approach to life.
  • Ajeet is a quiet Sikh girl of Nicky's age who befriends her and who is a storyteller like her grandmother, the matriarch of the group of Sikhs.
  • Gopal is a Sikh boy a little older than Nicky who takes her part and offers her a quiet companionship.

Synopsis:

Nicky Gore is left alone in London after a strange compulsion takes hold of the population of Britain to revolt against mechanism and technology. She is swept apart from her parents in a crowd and waits in vain for them to return. When a group of Sikhs — unaffected by the madness which affects the natives — makes its way through Shepherds Bush, she joins them in search of open land and good land and clean water.

The Sikhs allow Nicky to join them as a “canary”, able to tell whether anything they do is likely to bring crazed Britons to attack them. They all settle down on a deserted farm in Surrey, and have to cope with danger from the inhabitants of a nearby village who view them as the Devil's Children.

Notes:

Chronologically the first, the last to be written of the Changes Trilogy. The plot premise of the series is that the country has been gripped by a madness which makes everyone revolt against machinery, in fact throws the country back to a mediaeval outlook. The “Devil's Children” of the title are the Sikhs from the point of view of the villagers, sliding back into a kind of insular ignorance. The situation is explained in The Weathermonger and essentially comes down to a widesweeping Magic by an awakened wizard, but it provides a fascinating starting point here: a cataclysm story but which affects people rather than places.

That the book was written in 1969 is evident both in what is present in the narrative and in what is not. On the one hand, Nicky, a 12-year-old girl in London, has a satchel, a spare skirt and jersey and a party blouse to take with her when she joins the Sikhs. She had a mother and a father and a wider family before they were swept apart in a panicking crowd. She refers to the Sikhs at first as “Mr” or “Mrs” and later according to their relationships to her best friends. The Sikhs exercise a watchful control over their children even those of twelve or thirteen. On the other hand, Nicky and Gopal, a boy a year older, are treated as intelligent children and have no pretensions to a precocious romance.

In spite of the internal evidence of the book's date of origin, the situation it portrays could be of any time once the human race has turned enough mechanism and technology to its own advantage. It may be that the author was reflecting, for example, contemporary fears about nuclear power, but the story is more about a bringing to the surface of a perennial mistrust of anything which is seen as unnatural. Exactly where the line is drawn isn't too important, except insofar as that uncertainty gives the Sikhs a reason to take Nicky with them. But roughly speaking, anything which can't be produced by one or a few men working alone seems inadmissable.

The author steers clear of detailed or harrowing descriptions of the chaos which must have followed the onset of the nationwide madness. We are not told the details of Nicky's solitary existence for the several weeks before she joins the Sikhs, nor anything more than a few sketches of the initial reactions of the people. What we are given, though, is more than enough to understand the situation in which Nicky and the Sikhs find themselves, and is somehow the more engaging for being more reticent.

Nicky has separated from her family, but it is a real family “who would kiss you and not ask questions and show you the room they had kept ready for you”. There are parents whom she believes will come back to find her (and who are presumably prevented from doing so); a godmother who gave her a Christening present; Granny in Hertford. Instead she joins the extended family of Sikhs, several dozen of them, many related, with several children, including Gopal and Ajeet of her own age, and the Grandmother-Matriarch of the tribe. All these accept her willingly after initial misgivings. The Sikh parents are stricter with their children than Nicky is used to, and although this irks her at first, she understands that she needs to fit in with their ways or risk influencing the Sikh children against their parents' wishes. Although she finds her home with them for a while, in a poignant moment towards the end, the grandmother, speaking through one of her daughters warns Nicky that by staying she is only thickening the armour she had built around her heart when her parents did not return for her.

The Sikhs are competent, living up to their heritage as warriors, using skills they have brought from India, plus those they have learnt as relatively low-grade workers in Britain, and learning to farm the land they have settled. In spite of the fear and mistrust shown them by the villagers, the Sikhs trade the metalwork the villagers cannot undertake for food and other items. Ultimately, when the village is invaded by outlaws and the village children taken hostage, it is the Sikhs who come to their aid, forming an alliance between the two parties. This is, perhaps, the story's only concession to a happy ending, and brings in one of the few references to religion: as a few Sikhs were killed defending the village alongside two of the villagers, they decide to bury the bodies along the church wall, compromising on the matter of Christian burial.

Nicky and Ajeet are twelve, Gopal thirteen. Nicky develops a friendship of different sorts with the two Sikhs. On the one hand, she admires the quiet but competent Ajeet, dignified and on the cusp of womanhood while unwittingly taking after the example of her grandmother, following in the tradition of the women of her people. On the other hand, Gopal offers a cheerful friendship with only the lightest touch to her cheek a sign of anything more than that.

While the protagonist is a young girl, adults and children alike are the heroes of this story. Nicky has to act as negotiators with the villagers in spite of being slapped and shaken by the village leader; Gopal fights alongside his uncle, and Ajeet keeps the children occupied with the magic of her storytelling. But the Sikh adults are likeable and competent, and the British villagers eventually help themselves out of their difficulties.

Themes:

  • Sikhs and their culture and tradition
  • Dependence on machinery
  • The value of craftmanship

She was so stiff when she edged the window open that she had to clamber through like an old woman. Half way up the garden Gopal floated beside her from behind the runner beans; he touched her cheek with his hand in gentle welcome then led the way back across the school playground to where the faint whiteness of their rag in the hedge marked the cut wires.

They took the journey home as carefully as they'd come, but nothing stopped or even scared them until their own sentry hissed at them out of his hiding and made their tired hearts bounce. Though it was well past midnight, every adult Sikh was awake and waiting in the dark farmyard. Nicky told her story in English, breaking it into short lengths so that Uncle Jagindar could turn it into Punjabi for the old lady. The pauses while he spoke enabled her to think so that she left nothing out. When she had finished, five of the men crept out to relieve the sentries; for them she told the whole story all over again. Now every Sikh knew and Nicky could sleep.

Wednesday 12th July 2006