Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle
by Dodie Smith
Recommended Age: 12+

This first novel by a sometime playwright whose full name was Dorothy Gladys Beesely (maiden name Smith) comes highly recommended by no less than J. K. Rowling herself. Fans of children's literature have the additional incentive of seeing what kind of grown-up book the author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians could make. And film buffs should be excited to see the recent movie from this book, starring Henry Thomas and the stunning Romola Garai.

The narrator is seventeen- or eighteen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, speed-writing in her diary. What a Romantic name, right? But she is a very modern girl (for about 1948), considering that she lives in a ruined castle. Her father is a writer who hasn't written a word since his daring and successful first novel, years ago. Her stepmother is an artist's model named Topaz who likes to commune with nature in the nude. She has a gorgeous older sister named Rose, a bright but underfed schoolboy brother named Thomas, and a stunningly handsome live-in family servant named Stephen who worships the ground she walks on.

But the family is dirt poor. They have no income, except what Stephen brings in from his "day job" as a farm laborer, and later, from modeling for an art photographer who thinks he has a shot at being "on the pictures." The Mortmains manage to live by not paying their small annual rent on the castle, growing some of their own food, and a little modeling work that Topaz still does. Rose is getting particularly desperate, because she hates to be so poor and she is frustrated at not being able to meet men so that she can get married.

Things start looking up when the young Cotton brothers from America take over the estate of which the castle is a part. The older brother, Simon, is an intellectual who admires their father's work. The younger brother, Neil, is more of a would-be California rancher who sees right through Rose when she sets her sights on marrying Simon for money. It all ends up being a very confusing and painful chain of unrequited love-Rose pursued by Simon, who loves her passionately; Simon adored by Cassandra; Cassandra worshiped by Stephen; Stephen lusted after by the art photographer; and exciting, passionate Neil thrown in to stir things up.

It doesn't end the way romantic fiction usually does. But on the way to that ending you get to enjoy a scintillating narrative told by a bright, appealing narratrix. Cassandra puts up with no nonsense-usually-from herself, especially. But the complexities of love baffle and torment her-both being loved and not being able to love back, and loving someone who cannot love her. Sometimes you will hold your breath and cross your fingers, sometimes be overwhelmed with melancholy as you read this charming, surprising book.

The Hundred and One Dalmatians
by Dodie Smith
Recommended Age: 8+

Fans of the Disney films based on this book already know what’s in it pretty well. For those of you who missed them, Dodie Smith’s first novel for children (1956) starts with a bachelor and his young male Dalmatian meeting a pretty young lady and her female Dalmatian. The result is a double marriage, followed by a litter of 15 puppies and the adoption of another female Dalmatian to help nurse the pups. OK? That makes 18 Dalmatians so far.

Mr. and Mrs. Dearly and their servants, Nurse Butler and Nurse Cook (who are actually more of a butler and a cook these days), love the dogs dearly: handsome Pongo, pretty Missis, and the matronly nurse-dog, Perdita. They fully intend on keeping all fifteen puppies, from the horseshoe-spotted Lucky and the big strong Patch, to the mischievous Roly Poly and the slight, delicate Cadpig.

But the Dearlys haven’t reckoned on their pepper-loving, perpetually-fur-wrapped neighbor Cruella de Vil - es indeed, she of the half-black, half-white hair and the penchant for cruelty to animals. Cruella devises a hideous plan to turn the Dalmatian puppies of England into fur coats and matching gloves. Part of her plan involves dog-napping the Dearlys’ fifteen pups and using her vile, stupid henchmen (appropriately named Badduns) to guard them at her horrible country house.

Pongo, however, one of the cleverest dogs in Dogdom, is not that easily put off—-especially when his family is at stake. He and Missis use a canine communication relay known as the Twilight Barking to locate their pups, then set off cross-country to stage a daring rescue. Aided by kind animals and, occasionally, even by people along the way, Pongo and Missis arrive at Hell Hall just in time to learn that Cruella has decided that all the pups must be killed at once because of the publicity over the Dearlys’ lost and stolen pets.

All hopes of devising a careful escape plan go out the window, as Pongo and Missis must immediately lead their 15 pups and 82 others in a desperate flight through the Suffolk countryside. (97 pups, plus Pongo, Missis, and Perdita, still make only 100. Hmmm....) I suppose you can imagine how hard it is for 99 Dalmatians to cross 50 miles of England without being noticed' and in the dead of winter, that’s a lot of puppies needing food, drink and warmth as well. Some of them can’t walk long distances yet, either. Cruella is on their trail, and there are other setbacks too.

So there’s even more adventure getting back to London than there was coming away, but a happy homecoming, and sweet revenge, are in store - as well as the answer to the great mystery: What about the Hundred and "Oneth" Dalmatian?

The Starlight Barking
by Dodie Smith
Recommended Age: 12+

The little-known sequel to The Hundred and One Dalmatians has been recently reprinted with the original illustrations. It's a very different story, and some may not find it to their taste, but in it the same love for dogs, the same gently teasing sense of humor, and the same fanciful view of reality are evident.

As in Diana Wynne Jones' Dogsbody, the Lord of the Dog-Star, Sirius, makes an appearance in this book. This time, his coming is heralded by a day when almost every living thing that isn't a dog is lost in a pleasant, wakeless sleep. A day when doors and gates magically open for dogs, and other things they wish for come true. A day when dogs need neither food nor drink nor sleep, and learn that they can "swoosh" above the ground at high speed.

On such a day, great decisions need to be made - for dogs, by dogs. And one of the offspring of the Dearlys' Dalmatians, Pongo and Missis, is in a position to make them. Their beloved pup, Cadpig, has become the Prime Minister's famous pet. And now, in the absence of anyone else to do the job, she has become de facto Prime Minister. She needs her parents' help though, and using the power to communicate in thought-waves, she summons Pongo and Missis to London.

There, with many of their original litter and a variety of other dogs, the Pongos sniff out the mystery of what is causing this wonderful, weird day. They shake down the usual suspects, including Cruella de Vil, who has returned to England with a plan to market "clothes that clang." But as I hinted before, the real source of it all comes from much higher up. And soon every dog on Earth has to make a dreadful, wonderful choice...

Is this science fiction? Yes and no. Mostly, no, but it's very imaginative, very warm-hearted, and plenty of fun. And though the political sermon embedded in the story is a little dated in its details, it still applies - right down to the truth that what every good dog wants and deserves is a loving human family of its own.

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