Sunday, September 13, 2015

Book Review: No Boats on Bannermere by Gregory Trease (1949)

When Bill and Sue Melbury move with their single mother to Beckfoot Cottage in Bannerdale, they are surprised to learn that their neighbor, Sir Alfred Askew who owns Bannermere Hall, allows no boats on the lake. Together with Tim Darren, Bill's new friend from the boy's grammar school in nearby Winthwaite, and Penelope (Penny) Morchard, Sue's new friend from the girls' secondary school, the kids set out to investigate why Askew is so opposed to activity on the lake. The surprising discoveries they make while secretly exploring his land soon have them on the trail of a potential murder mystery which might get them in trouble with their respective heads of school, or worse.

Unlike the popular mystery novels of its day (Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Famous Five, The Boxcar Children etc.), this book is truly a work of literature. The characters are as well-developed as the plot, and solving the mystery is but one aspect of their rich, interesting lives. The writing is easy to read, yet clever, and there is a delightful underlying humor to the whole story that makes the reader want to spend as much time as possible in Bannerdale. Themes such as single parenthood (Mrs. Melbury) and a physical disability (Penny's limp) disprove the misconception that older books lack diversity and add to the realism of the story overall. Also enjoyable are Tim Darren's earnest desire to be a detective and the gentle rivalry between the heads of the boys' grammar school and girls' secondary school. It's amazing that this book is not better known - or even still in print - as it is one of the best-written titles I have read from the 1940s. 

No Boats on Bannermere shares much in common with Swallows and Amazons, but because it is written in first person using Bill's voice, the reading experience feels more like a personal conversation with a friend (similar to the Henry Reed books) than an observation of adventure from the outside looking in. While it is fun to imagine oneself having the adventures enjoyed by the Swallows and Amazons, it is much more likely that average school kids would have experiences similar to those which happen to Bill, Sue, Tim, and Penny. Because the world of the story is so ordinary, it is easier to relate to the characters and to feel genuinely surprised when unusual (but still plausible) events begin to occur. 

No Boats on Bannermere is the first in a series of five titles. The sequels are: Under Black Banner (1951),  Black Banner Players (1952),  Black Banner Abroad, (1954), and The Gates of Bannerdale (1956).

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