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One Dog and His Boy , a posthumous novel by Eva Ibbotson, tells the story of Hal, a boy who seemingly has everything anyone his age could wish for. Hal’s well-off parents always buy him the latest games and gadgets, it’s just a shame they’re not around very much as Hal feels more than a little lonely. His greatest wish, then, is to have a canine companion, but his parents refuse to even consider the idea. When Hal’s birthday comes around and once again he doesn’t get a dog, he’s crushed with disappointment. Hal’s largely absent father tries to cheer him up by renting a dog for the weekend from the Easy Pet Dog Agency, only he neglects to tell Hal that the dog is to be returned. Hal and his new dog, Fleck, immediately become the best of friends, and trying to separate them will be harder than Hal’s parents could ever have imagined.

Jodie and I read One Dog and His Boy together, and below we discuss the story and the many wonders to be found in Eva Ibbotson’s novels.

Ana: I thought I’d open this conversation with what I told you in my e-mail, which was also my first thought after finishing this book: I wish I could live in an Eva Ibbotson novel. If I did, the solution to my current sources of uncertainty and anxiety would appear just as I was about to give up hope, and it would be exactly right for me. Plus my friends would also get exactly what they need, and all the Not Exactly Nice people I come across would begin go change and grow (Or Else), and life would be generally fair.

One Dog and His Boy is my third Eva Ibbotson novel, and I noticed this about all of them - it’s what makes them such perfect comfort reads. Yet describing her novels like this might make them sound like they’re set in a world where everything is black and white, that lacks any sort of nuance, and where there’s no room here for anything other than moral absolutes and cotton-candy perfection. And I don’t think that’s really true. I think she’s comforting and uplifting and like a fairy godmother, but she’s never simplistic. Do you agree? If so, what do you think prevents her writing from crossing that line? And if not, feel free to argue with me :P

Jodie: I think this is my third novel by Eva Ibbotson as well and from what I remember Ibbotson’s novels do tend to contain strong ideas about what constitutes justice. These ideas are expressed through the plot resolutions where good characters receive rewards and bad characters either get punished, or see the light before the story’s over. Her novels also tend to mark out the same kind of people as good (children, poorer people) and bad (rich adults).

And I agree describing her books this way make them sound simplistic, or even like they’re indulging in some heavy handed moralising, but they don’t feel that way when you’re reading one, do they? Her novels deal out just what the characters need and just what readers want to see happen to them, even though such satisfying resolutions may not be entirely realistic. That realisation of simple justice feels fantastic, but it would come off flat without the realism and nuance of other areas of the story, for example the real struggle that the good characters face to making their own happy ending appear. If I didn’t really believe that their journey took a lot of effort and that it was sometimes doubtful whether they’d reach a happy conclusion her books would hold little interest for me.

And then there’s the compassion that is allowed for any bad character shocked into changing their behaviour. Everyone has a chance to change for the better in an Ibbotson novel and in many cases they may not have been exactly bad to begin with, just incapable of seeing another point of view or understanding how badly they were behaving. That kind of character creation counters any charges of simplistic absolutes.

Ana: YES. You put it perfectly. They definitely don’t feel that way when you’re reading them, and the fact that she has compassion for all her characters is a huge contributing factor. Also, the sense of justice you speak of makes her books perfect comfort reading, but at the same time, these are not books where anyone good is safe from ever having anything bad happen to them. Although her stories generally have happy endings, there’s often a note of bittersweetness intermingled (I don’t want to give away the ending in this case, but to put it vaguely, people and creatures who care about each other have to part ways, even if it is to move on to a good future), and the trials and tribulations along the way have real emotional resonance. But I’m just paraphrasing you at this point, because you really did put it all perfectly. So I’ll move on to a really important question ;) Favourite dog?

Jodie: Call me a sap, but it’s got to be Francine the performing poodle. When she has to pull herself away from circus tricks and puppy love with Rupert, to journey on with her friends, my heart squeezed a little bit. I kind of like that she gets to become attached to another dog, as well as people, while the others just meet their perfect humans, because d’awww. The children’s time at the circus is one of my favourite bits (blame growing up with a whole bookcase of Enid Blyton books).

Which is your favourite dog? Can we use this question as an excuse for some photos of your canine buddies?!

Ana: Ha - I was going to ask if insert dog pictures here would be a bit much, but I see I need not worry ;) My favourite was Otto, and the reason was exactly that he reminded me of one of my dogs. I’m used to huge, peaceful and wise-looking dogs, and the way Otto was described was spot on, down to being adored by smaller dogs. I find watching animals developing relationships and interacting with each other fascinating, both in reality and in fiction, so I’ll join you in d’awwing Francine and her gentleman friend, as well as the friendship between the dogs from Room A. What about the human characters? Anyone you particularly liked?

Jodie: Psychic! I thought you were going to pick Otto based on the pictures I've seen of your dogs :)

At the risk of being Captain Obvious (I assume I get a cool space ship with that title) I'll say Hal is a favourite. Hal reminds me of the young male heroes I grew up reading about, like the heroes of Enid Blyton or Colin Dann books These male characters were pretty much defined by their innate understanding of what was fair and unfair behaviour. The way I remember it even 'bad' heroes like William from Richmal Crompton's books could identify when the adults were being unreasonable (although they didn't necessarily see the unfairness of their own behaviour towards others). They tried to act on some kind of honour code that gave license for certain things that society would frown on, for example staying out late, petty theft and lying for just reasons, but expressed absolute disapproval for certain negative qualities usually found in adults like acting sly, unkindness towards animals, or lying for cruel purposes.

Hal's character seems to incorporate the same kind of moral code. He's totally uncompromising in his disapproval when he finds out that his parents have just rented Fleck for him. He has no problem with running away and stealing a dog, because it feels right. The only way for Hal to make the world fair is for him to steal Fleck, so he does because to live in an unfair world feels unbearable.

I like Hal because he has firm opinions about just behaviour, like those classic child heroes I grew up reading about and he's not afraid to make them know, for example when his parents trick is revealed he freezes them out of his life, calmly but coldly. He's very clear about his emotions and his right to express them. At the same time he's not unbending, or detached from all emotion. He expresses enthusiastic, boundless love for Fleck (male characters who loved dogs beyond words were also a big feature of my early reading). And there's room for Hal's response to his parents to change if they can show they've changed. In fact the only reason he runs away is because he doesn't feel they can change and he can't survive in the kind of environment they've created, especially when their world doesn't allow dogs in. That's a pretty rational response, coupled with genuine emotion.

I love that Ibbotson manages to make her male hero emotional without making him appear 'irrational' and that she makes him firm without cutting him off from emotion. There's just so much right there. Can you tell I'm preoccupied with the whole 'these male characters aren't for boys' mess right now? I've rambled on for ages about Hal, but I also liked Pippa heaps and I'd love to hear how you felt about her. Was she a favourite character of yours?

Ana: Yes, I think I can tell ;) I’d add some grumbling of my own about the mess and the underlying assumption that there is one single valid model of masculinity, but I want to stay on topic so I’ll refrain :P Pippa was indeed a favourite of mine - in fact I can’t decide between her and Hal. They have a lot in common in the sense that I think she shares his sense of justice, but she’s quicker to take the initiative and is more resourceful than Hal is, at least at first (which is quite possibly a way for Ibbotson to comment on his privileged and sheltered upbringing).

But what I think is really interesting is to think of Pippa in relation to her sister Kayley. For those who haven’t read the book, Kayley is an overworked and underpaid staff member at the Easy Pet Dog Agency, where Hal’s father rents Fleck for the weekend. Kayley works there because she loves dogs, but the agency’s greedy owners clearly don’t. Contrary to what they believe, Fleck is in fact a mongrel, but she tricks them into letting him stay by saying he’s a soon to be fashionable new breed, a Tottenham Terrier. I’m mentioning this because it shows that Kayley is not averse to acts of rebellion, but unlike her younger sister Pippa (who comes to befriend Hal and helps him achieve his goal), she mostly plays by the rules.

In this sense Kayley is a more traditional representation of a girl/young woman than Pippa is, but what I liked the most was the fact that Ibbotson felt no need to disparage one model of behaviour to elevate the other. Pippa is brave and impulsive and smart and prone to taking control of the situation, but she’s clearly no excepto-girl. If there’s one thing Ibbotson does allude to, it’s perhaps age. It’s easy to imagine Pippa as a younger Kayley: they share the same ideals, the same urge to right the wrongs they see, but Kayley has perhaps witnessed more injustices than her sister and this has made her warier. Having said this, an Eva Ibbotson book is probably the very last place where you’ll find some sort of “growing older will make everyone cynical” implication. The point is that Kayley is not cynical; only more cautious. She hasn’t lost that urge to fight for what feels right. And in the end, Pippa and Hal do succeed, which speaks volumes for itself.

On a side note, hooray for books where a girl/boy team wins the day, and where said boy and girl are friends and remain friends all through the story. Not that there’s anything wrong with romance (we’ve had this conversation a million times, but just in case anyone missed it ;)), but I want ALL THE STORIES and this one doesn’t seem to get told very often. MOAR inter-gender friendships, please.

Any further thoughts? We’re both relative beginners when it comes to Ibbotson, but how do you think One Dog and His Boy compares to her others? Are you also sad that she’s not around to write more books but glad that she has such a huge back catalogue for us to explore?

Jodie: I’ve got to say I missed the fantasy element found in the other Ibbotson books I’ve read, just because she’s so inventive when it comes to what magic to include and what creatures appear. Otherwise I thought all the good bits of her writing were there - the generosity, the justice, the strong, fast character creation. I am glad she’s got such a huge back catalogue for us to explore. Small is beautiful, but large is sometimes better for us greedy, greedy readers. I will now blatantly push ‘The Secret of Platform 13’ at you, as a perfect next Ibbotson book - it has harpies that strongly resemble Margaret Thatcher, a band of magical friends on a journey and some serious links to Harry Potter. Do you have a reciprocal book to push on me? Come on, book pushing is fun!

You’ve mentioned above how nicely she mixes traditional and non-traditional female representation into the book by making both Pippa and Kayley good, valuable characters. So I do wonder a bit at the character flaws she gives Hal’s mother and father, which run along very traditional gender lines. The root of both their negative qualities is the same, non-gendered attachment, or absolute belief in the power and good of money, but that negative quality is expressed in different, traditionally gendered forms depending on which character Ibbotson is writing. Hal’s father is an absentee workaholic, while Hal’s mother is obsessed with shopping and redecorating. I’ve said that I find her books like traditional children’s literature and sometimes I wonder the traditional side contains traditional negatives as well as positives. Thoughts?

I’d also like to internet high five you for your comments on inter-gender friendships! I am always so excited to find them. I loved that Pippa and Hal’s friendship is so easy, although I feel like Ibbotson was writing for a more innocent, unrestricted child than the majority of kids actually have the opportunity to be now. In real life Pippa might mention being wary about running away with a strange boy, because her parents would probably have passed those kind of worries on to her. Maybe Ibbotson a little bit naive of the realities of modern life in this instance, what do you think?

Ana: She does have an old-fashioned sensibility, yes. A lot of the time this shows in positive ways, but traditionalism also has its dangers, and what you picked up concerning Hal’s parents is an excellent example. I suppose we could read it generously and see them as embodying gender stereotypes because the world they inhabit IS divided into very strict gendered lines: the father is the breadwinner and so he’s expected to be away from home, which leads to absence and neglect; the mother is confined to the domestic sphere, doesn’t really know what to do with herself, and so ends up becoming a Superficial Rich Woman and neglecting Hal in different ways. But there just isn’t enough in One Dog and His Boy to support a more complex reading because Hal’s parents remain in the background. However, I was happy that there were other characters in the story to prevent these representations from becoming completely dominant - Hal’s grandparents, for example.

What you said about Pippa running away with a boy she has just met - I had similar thoughts about something else in the story, which was Ibbotson’s portrayal of the circus and the kind way the performing animals were treated. You can tell how very badly she wants a rose-tinted version of reality to be true, one in which the animals are appreciated and trained lovingly and bring thousands of children immense joy, and so you kind of go along with her for the ride. But at the back of my mind there was a voice going, “But, but, but!”. The same is true of Pippa’s implicit trust in Hal and of the fact that nothing very horrible happens to two children out there on their own. But when I think of her writing this book at age 85 and passing away before it was published I can’t find it in me to be harsh. I hope this doesn’t sound condescending, because I don’t mean it that way at all. I guess the fact that she grew up in a very different world does show in her novels.

I am all for book pushing and will get my hands on The Secret of Platform 13 as soon as possible. You know what’s strange? None of the Eva Ibbotson novels I have read to date were fantasy - though I had to pause and think for a moment before I realised this was the case, because they have such a clear fairy tale feel even though they’re technically realistic. I’d recommend both The Dragonfly Pool and Journey To the River Sea, though the latter has female Edwardian naturalists and journeys to the jungle, which gives it a slight edge.

Jodie: Ana it is like we were channeling each other while reading this book! The circus comment was really hard for me to swallow. I could see where she was coming from, because dogs and other domesticated animals are happy being taught tricks, but it seemed like you say that she’s stretching a point to accommodate the reality she wants to believe in. Sometimes it’s strange to think that views many people my age grew up with would have represented a relatively radical shift of world view for people born several decades earlier.

Journey to the River Sea successfully pushed! It’s been a pleasure to take part in my first Ana joint review, let’s hope there are many more of these to come.

Ana: It’s been a pleasure for me too :D I know we’ll find another book to read together before long.


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