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T.C.A. Avni

By Eva Ibbotson
Macmillan, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 385, Rs. 299.00


Set around the time of World War II, young Tally Hamilton lives with her father and two aunts in a slightly shabby house in a slightly shabby street in England. The threat of war is in the air, and when an offer comes for a full scholarship for Tally in a private boarding school from a patient, Dr Hamilton gratefully seizes it, seeing it as an opportunity to see his daughter to safety in the countryside. The book then moves to Delderton Hall, which is introduced to us as school which ‘believes in freedom and self-development, and not forcing the children’: there are no uniforms, few rules and children can choose which classes to attend, if any at all. Tally, although initially reluctant, takes to the school quite happily and is soon shunted off as part of a delegation to the troubled kingdom of Bergania, where she meets and befriends the crown prince and has lots of adventures and eventually saves the day.  The strongest emotion I can bring myself to muster for this book is one of mild irritation. The characters are one-dimensional and clichéd. Tally is a uniformly sweet, pleasant, charming, friendly, any-other-nice-epithet-one-can-think-of child: she always listens to her father; she is adored by everyone around her; she is friendly, patriotic and unassuming. In short, she seems entirely too unrealistic. Dr Hamilton is the good doctor who is always tirelessly working for people around him without any concern for himself and contrasts strongly to his selfish brother (also a doctor) who charges the earth to his patients and is therefore very rich with utterly cold and snobby children. Even Adolf Hitleris reduced to a blithering idiot who is constantly ‘braying and strutting and threatening, growing madder and wilder in his demands by the day’. Mussolini becomes a parrot, invading innocent little countries that have done nothing wrong merely because Hitler is doing the same. One can, however, understand where this version of history is coming from, given Ibbotson’s own experiences: her mother’s successful career as a writer and playwright suffered when Hitler banned her works, her family had to flee Vienna for England when the Germans invaded, and Ibbotson herself would have had first-hand knowledge of the war and how the Jews were being persecuted.  I suppose the biggest problem I have with the story is how it hits at my own childhood ‘boarding school’ ...

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