It is the spring of 1940. The British army are in France, trying to hold back the German advance. In a small village in the east of England, two teenage boys--one from a family of land owning locals, one an evacuee from London--are making friends. Pat and his stepmother, who is expecting a baby any day, had not been given a kindly welcome when they arrived from London. Instead, they had been grudgingly given the shelter of a derelict railway carriage, surrounded by cows. John, lonely, compassionate, and a bit bored, decides that his family's unused barn would make a better place to live. Working together to make the barn habitable, the boys are glad to have something productive to do while the worry of the war drags on.
But one day, they see a line of little boats heading out to sea, toward France, and they hear the story of the British army trapped on the beaches across the channel. So John and Pat, who had never even seen the sea before he left London, set out in John's little boat, Dolphin, on the same night that Pat's sister is being born. They are determined to save as many men as they can, and for the next few days they mechanically ferry boat load after boat load of men from the beach to the offshore naval vessels. Boats next to theirs are blown up, and machine gun fire from the Germans rakes across their bow. Still they keep going, back and forth, and still there are men on the beach, waiting (and I, at this point, am sniffing a bit--Dunkirk always makes me sniff).
So much of what I know of history I learned from historical fiction, and I eagerly recommend The Dolphin Crossing to anyone who wants to learn more about the early days of World War II in England, and what happened at Dunkirk. It's also, pure and simple, a really good book. Enough characterization for those of us who like that, and enough nail biting adventure for those that like that. It is short enough so as not to be daunting, but packs a punch. I think, however, that the ending stinks and that authors who do this to their readers are not nice.
spoiler, and some talk in general of what I look for in an ending, moving on to the Tooth Fairy.
At the end, John and Pat have had to go back to England because they are running out of gas. They make it home safely, although John has been hit by gunfire, and unload their boat load of soldiers into John's kitchen. And then, after a few days in bed recovering, John learns that Pat refueled the Dolphin and took her back to France, and hasn't shown up again. And that's it. Argh. I would rather know for a fact he was dead, than have it hinted at by the author, who knows I will never find out. Imagining your own endings is not the same as having them told you by the One who Knows. When I try to imagine Pat alive somewhere down the coast, having by some miracle brought the Dolphin back safely, or perhaps picked up by another boat after he sinks the Dolphin, I feel like a kid trying to believe in the tooth fairy. This is one reason I like Tolkien, who went to great pains to make sure we know what happened to everyone at the end of The Lord of the Rings.
Jill Paton Walsh is, of course, still very much alive and still writing books, but for grownups these days, so I doubt very much that she will ever save poor Pat from his fictional limbo of presumed death.
And speaking of the Tooth Fairy, it is a very good thing that we never tried very hard to get our children to believe in it. My poor little one lost a second tooth last night, in violent and bloody circumstances (it was loose, but not quite ripe, when he received a whap in the face from his older brother). So he was promised that the Tooth Fairy would bring extra money on account of the blood. Sigh. For the second time in his life, the Tooth Fairy completely failed to remember to put anything at all under his pillow.... Bad Tooth Fairy.
The Dolphin Summer might be a bit hard to find here in the US. I am not bothering to link to the US Amazon page because it says that it is a book for babies with no copies available. However, if your library, like mine, still has its books from the 1960s (which I think is a good thing) you might be in luck (anyone in Rhode Island can get it through interlibrary loan!). There are, however, many cheap used copies available in paperback in Britain, here at Amazon UK you can buy it for two cents (plus postage).
Other Dunkirk Books:
Another excellent book about an evacuee (a teenaged girl, this time) who heads off to Dunkirk is In Spite of All Terror by Hester Burton. There is also Paul Gallico's lovely and tear-inducing The Snow Goose. And if anyone happens to have a spare copy of Dunkirk Summer, by Philip Turner, which I have never read, I would be happy to take it off your hands! It has been on my Christmas Wants List for years now, and since there are no copies available ever it probably will stay there (right alongside Words and Music, by William Mayne). For more on the unavailability of Dunkirk Summer here's a 2002 article in Collecting Books and Magazines. Of course, anyone who has a spare copy who reads that article will become strangely reluctant to send it off to a stranger...
Here's how the article describes the book:
This is perhaps the best book of the nine. It's the story of a community awakening to the full horrors of the war and of young man and a young woman realising for the first time the full possibilities of their love. For a long time, like Andy Birch, the hero, the reader comes to Darnley Mills as a stranger once more. Then the charm of the familiar places, especially All Saints Church and its rectory, and some of our old favourite characters begins to exert itself. Twenty years later it is the world that will be inherited by David, Peter and Arthur but only if the community survives Hitler and his bombs. No longer a boy, not quite a man, seventeen year old Andy faces up to his future.Sigh. I want it.