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The Dolphin Crossing

Style: Average → Good

Attitude: Unobjectionable → Positive

In Brief: A short but thoughtful story, focusing on the effect war has on different characters and what courage is about. Those left behind in wartime. Spirit of those who took their small craft to ferry troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. Generosity of both boys supporting each other in different ways in spite of very different backgrounds.

Cover of The Dolphin Crossing

Author: Jill Paton Walsh

Publisher: Puffin

Published in: 1967

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: WWII

Setting: South Coast of Britain / Dunkirk

Genres:  War


Characters:

  • John Aston is the 17-year-old son of a well-to-do family living on the South Coast. His father is away in the Merchant Navy, his older brother a conscientious objector.
  • Pat Riley is a 14-year-old evacuee from London. His father is fighting in France.
  • Mrs Aston, putting up gamely with having relinquished their large house to the military, has to remain brave in the face of her husband's long absence at sea.

Synopsis:

John Aston, realising the plight of the British forces at Dunkirk, takes the family's small craft Dolphin and, helped by Pat Riley, braves the sky and land-based attacks to ferry troops from the beaches.

Notes:

A short book, no more than 132 pages, this story draws a neat picture of several wartime concepts: evacuees and their relations with their hosts; the courage needed simply to sit at home and wait; the different courage to take in a small boat under fire; and the decision to object in conscience to fighting in a war. These themes are woven skilfully enough in a thin plot involving John's discovery of an unexpected generosity towards a refugee pair, and his growing realisation of the predicament of the British forces only a few miles away on the French coast.

Perhaps the weakest point about the book for the modern reader is the character of John and his London evacuee counterpart Pat. One looks for a character or characters with whom one is to identify. And here, the obvious candidates are John and Pat, but especially John. Now, such characters are usually either simplified, such as Arthur Ransome's Swallows & Amazons or Alex Rider, or more complex, such as Robert Nobel, the Feather Boy or Darryl in Fly, Cherokee, Fly. John doesn't really fit either role. We know too much about his thoughts and insecurities for him to play the simpler, flattened role, yet his person — the tutored 17-year-old son of a well-to-do country family — is not easily identified with nowadays.

That said, John's thoughts and decisions inform the plot of the story, moving it along, and are perfectly coherent with his character. Nor is it Pat's part simply to play the sidekick. Each boy has his own competence and savvy, and in both cases, the other learns from him. Pat can mix cement and shift loads; John must learn the trade. John, however, can sail and navigate, but Pat must learn enough to take over when he's injured.

That war should bring together the slightly odd couple — the secure country older schoolboy and the deprived East Londoner — is no tremendous surprise. (A similar echo is found, for example, between Ralph's Dad and Basil Duke in Cuckoo in the Nest). But the alliance is achieved with good grace, although not without disagreement, and each contributes his strength to the other.

Family plays a background part in the story, not least one of contrast. John's family is well-to-do, Pat's is poor. John's father is a captain in the Merchant Navy, Pat's a footsoldier somewhere in France. John's mother is living as best she can in a gardener's cottage while Pat's is doing the same in a cleaned-out stable. (Pat's “mother” is not in fact his natural mother, who left Pat & his father. But he is as caring for her as if she was, especially now she's expecting a child). Finally, John's older brother is a conscientious objector, something which Pat hates and derides and which John is ambivalent about, torn between loyalty to his brother and his own desire to join the war effort.

This book, written in 1967, walks a delicate line on the subject of conscientious objection. 30 years before, anyone over 14 who wasn't trying to lie about his age to get into the armed forces was a coward; 30 years after, anyone who did was soon disillusioned (cf Private Peaceful, for example). But here, while John & Pat are both yearning to join up and fight, John's older brother Andrew has taken a stance in conscience against fighting, volunteering for hospital duty instead. And throughout the book, John stands by him, without really knowing why, especially when he sees a troop ship torpedoed by U-boats.

Ultimately, the story has the boys as unsanctioned heroes, John taking action as a means of overcoming his anxiety; Pat, a simpler personality, seeing in every soldier he rescues his own father, stranded somewhere in France. The question of whether Pat's final action is bravery or stupidity is left open.

Themes:

  • Courage: what is it?
  • How real is the story of Dunkirk?
  • Conscientious Objection

They took Dolphin close under the bows of a great destroyer riding at anchor in the sea lanes, and moved towards the shore. Then they saw that the dark patches on the beaches were moving; flowing slowly like spilt water on a flat plate. It wasn't oil; it was great crowds of men. They stood in wide masses on the sands, and the sun struck a dull metallic glint off their steel helmets. Great groups of them moved slowly down towards the water's edge. Long lines of them snaked from behind the dunes, and the head of some of the lines stretched out into the water. They had waded out shoulder deep, and they stood there, quietly, looking all one way — seawards.

Saturday 29th July 2006