Full disclosure, as they say: Paul Dowswell is an admired ex-colleague and all-round good man, approachable and thoughtful and entirely without affectation, so this post may not be entirely objective. (Then again, I can’t think of many ex-colleagues I would recommend quite so highly.) Many of the below, and especially Ausländer, The Cabinet of Curiosities, Sektion 20 and in particular Eleven Eleven will be best for readers of 11+ (my apologies to younger readers and their parents, but please be patient and be assured that they are worth waiting to read).
I don’t know who first had the idea of presenting history in the form of a tabloid newspaper – cringeworthy puns and all – but Dowswell certainly had a lot of fun with it, from Stone Age Sentinel (“Ape Man In Walking Sensation”) to Roman Record (“Wolf Boy Kills Twin – Then Founds City”). It’s history by brilliant stealth, with historical fact and accurate period detail disguised as breathless news bulletin and simpering home, health’n’beauty tips. Ideal for history-minded readers of 9+ (perhaps inspired by a rich diet of Terry Deary?), these are books I’ve also successfully given to grown-up friends who’ve not left their history entirely in the schoolroom.
For slightly older readers, there is the True Stories series – impeccably-researched but grippingly-told real-life episodes, unashamedly Boys-Own in theme – tales of the two World Wars, Everest, the North and South Poles, survival, spies… They are particularly appealing to the growing number (especially boys) who can’t be doing with fiction, and are easy to dip into, using a short story format – but at the same time making the most of adventurous, compelling descriptive language to bring the reader right up close to the action.
If I say that war is Dowswell’s passion, it sounds all wrong; but the Introduction to the Second World War shows a writer with huge knowledge and human understanding, and is an unequalled overview of the conflict, not only for its many-sided account of the fighting itself, but for its consideration of the build-up and aftermath, of civilian experience as well as military manoeuvre. It’s made even more illuminating by use of well-chosen full-page archive photographs, and Internet links to archive film footage, radio broadcasts, original documents and eyewitness accounts.
For devotees of naval fiction for children, particularly of the Napoleonic navy and particularly of the grittier, less-than-officer-class experience (a fairly specific readership, I grant you), 2005-6 must have felt like the end of a decades-long wait for a bus. For the unsuspecting authors, it must have been somewhat frustrating – but at least readers can reasonably go from one to another in a way that passengers on the No. 11 rarely do by choice. Susan Cooper’s Victory was published, and often reviewed, up against Dowswell’s Powder Monkey, both conjuring eyewitness accounts of country boys pressed into the Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, and making their way through its cramped, brutal hierarchy. I loved Victory and Sam Robbins’ clear eye and true voice in it, although I found the contemporary story of Molly somewhat distracting. Dowswell has less distraction and more scope in Powder Monkey and its successors, Prison Ship and Battle Fleet, which see Sam Witchall unfairly accused, transported to the fearsome, exotic Australian colonies, and finally rehabilitated aboard Admiral Nelson’s own ship. There is more to the trilogy than Patrick O’Brian “lite”, but it shares O’Brian’s terrific ability to bring a ship to life, to give her crew all their due dimensions and to tell a gripping story without ever stalling in period detail and the proper names for bits of a boat.
Ausländer sees Dowswell returning to the Second World War and the story, so strange it has to be (and proves to be) true, of the children from Nazi-occupied territories selected as “Volksdeutsche”, of German blood, and allocated to deserving Party families. Piotr Bruck loses his parents and his home in one terrible day in 1941, and is sent to a Warsaw orphanage where his future is bleak enough – until his German surname, blond hair and blue eyes mark him out as Volksdeutsch. As Peter, he settles in to the well-connected Kaltenbach family in Berlin, and struggles to come to terms with his apparently good fortune – until a terrible secret comes to light, and forces a desperate choice. Ausländer combines the fascination of a rarely-told historical perspective – wartime Berlin, persuasive in every detail – with the pace of a cracking thriller.
The Cabinet of Curiosities is equally persuasive in a far more remote and rarely-examined time: after a nail-biting opening, having been robbed and almost killed, young Lukas Declercq makes his way across Europe to the court of the Emperor Rudolph in Prague, where his uncle will take him on as apprentice physician. At the very end of the sixteenth century, Prague is a place of tolerance in an increasingly superstitious, judgemental Europe: a remarkable place where Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, can live alongside each other – but where one may go from being the Emperor’s confidant to facing his torture chamber from one day to the next. The Emperor himself is not safe from attack, and his greatest weakness is his legendary collection of holy relics, treasures and mechanical marvels, the Cabinet of Curiosities. Lukas has his own weaknesses and secrets, too, and his chances of saving the Emperor’s and his own life seem more remote by the page, especially when facing the implacable power of the Inquisition…
Sektion 20 returns to Berlin in the very recent past: the early 1970s, and the reality of being a rebellious teen in the suffocating, drab and corrosively suspicious atmosphere of East Berlin. Alex and Geli’s parents are good Party members, but their teenaged children increasingly question the gap between Party rhetoric and real life, forced conformism and endless shortages. Alex becomes a target for “preventative harassment” and “interventionist action”: chilling bureaucrat-speak for surveillance, intimidation and imprisonment. When an opportunity arises for escape to the West, Alex and Geli seize it without question – but it’s not so easy to leave the poisonous clutches of the Stasi, and it becomes clear that someone has betrayed their trust. A gripping and sobering read about a life that is nearer in time and place than we can now believe.
Most recently, Eleven Eleven is in my view Dowswell’s best yet, set in the bitter, exhausted last hours of the First World War and following the fates, more and more closely linked, of raw young army recruits Will Franklin on the British side, Axel Meyer on the German one and ambitious American pilot Eddie Hertz. The Biblical “eleventh hour” becomes horribly significant as the three forces are drawn into desperate fighting, right up to and beyond the agreed armistice. In the last resort, the three are drawn together not only by weariness, hunger and fear, but by a growing mutual respect and the desperate desire to end the carnage, as they watch battle veterans of four years being picked off within an hour of the longed-for peace. Page-turning as ever, Eleven Eleven lives and breathes exhausted countryside and exhausted men, kept barely alive by gallows humour, small kindnesses and impossible hope. I don’t recall ever reading a better children’s book (older children’s book, please note, with some necessarily shocking moments) about the Great War.
Researching this post, I came across a good interview with some insights and excellent advice for aspiring writers. I recommend www.le.ac.uk/engassoc/fellows/SIG/clpd.html