CBRBingo11 – Back to School!
I’ve read this book about 800 times. The first time I read it was with my fifth grade class, and I’ll forever thank Mrs Cook for introducing us to this wonderful story. I blasted through the rest of the five-book “sequence” after that and it remains my favorite middle grade series (before middle grade was a thing). This year I am participating once again in the Dark is Rising readathon and so it also made sense for this to be my Back to School book, since every time I reread it I am transported back to fifth grade and the best book report assignment ever. The image I used here is the edition I read as a child, and my favorite. It was published in 1965 but still in print.
Simon, Jane, and Barney Drew are celebrating their summer holidays in the Cornish village of Trewissick. Finally they get to spend some time with their idolized Great-Uncle Merry, a family friend of their mothers who disappears for months at a time, chasing down ancient relics for his work with the museum. But now he’s rented The Grey House, a towering old abode by the Cornwall coast, for them to enjoy together, if they can only nail him down for a time. On a gloomy, rainy day, the siblings decide to explore the house, and it is then that they discover a hidden door leading to an attic of treasures – quite literally, as they find an unspeakably old map cast aside in a floorboard. They decide Great-Uncle Merry is the only adult they can tell who won’t take it away or tell them to put it back. And they’re right. Somberly but significantly, Merry translates the ancient language of the map for them, and reveals that it leads to a grail, and not just any chalice, but one belonging to King Arthur and his knights of days gone by. The grain is buried over sea, and under stone, to keep it safe from the forces of the Dark who Bedwin the knight hid it from a thousand years before. But Merry warns them that finding the map and pursing the grail puts the children in incredible danger, for those who are part of that mysterious element the Dark also want the grail, and they have no scruples in how they obtain it. He vows to do what he can to distract the Dark away and assist the Drews in the quest, setting them off on a treasure hunt around Cornwall, with bigger stakes than any of them could possibly imagine.
This is one of those series where you can start here or you can start with the second book Cooper wrote, The Dark is Rising. The series is named The Dark is Rising, and that one is inarguably the better written book (it was a Newbery honor, and the fourth book in the series won the award). But I really like starting with OSUS, and not just because it was how I was introduced to the book. However, I’d probably recommend different things depending on the reader. For those new to King Arthur lore, especially children, I’d recommend starting with this one. It’s a quick, light intro to the legend and action-packed. But for those who are already well-acquainted and who love the imagery and depth of The Sword and the Stone, I’d recommend starting with The Dark is Rising, for reasons I’ll get to in a future Cannonball review.
I’ve always loved OSUS and love it still for the reasons it captivated me the first time around. The King Arthur connection was a quick grab for me, as it was always a curiosity having grown up with family who loved the legends. The action scenes are so great – breathtaking, internalized, but riveting. The characters are wonderfully written. Each of the siblings has a distinct voice, between Simon’s holier-than-thou older sibling role (in a likable way), Jane’s compassion and worry, and Barney’s irrepressible excitement and love of King Arthur. Each of the Drew siblings get their “moment” in the series and I love that. Both a moment where they shine and save the day, as well as moments of weakness in the face of dangerous adults who are more cunning than they can hope to be at their young age. I always loved Jane especially, but that’s probably because I read it as her contemporary, and luckily she gets plenty of hero time in a book mostly focusing on boys and men. But the best character is Great-Uncle Merry. He’s a wonderful translation of Merlin — fierce, unpredictable, deep, loving, and with a wonderful sardonic bend to his humor.
I did notice some inconsistencies this time round, and understand why some people think it is the weakest part of the series. It certainly feels like the most juvenile of the books, but I like this aspect as it feels similar to the Harry Potter series – you can start with this one around fourth or fifth grade, and then really fall in love with the rest of the books as you mature.
Lastly, this book, published in 1965, does include some racial insensitivity. The scene when the Drews find the map portrays them playing explorer in a very colonizing way, and later on a scene features some adult characters dressed up in culturally inappropriate costumes for the local carnival. It would be nice if this could be revisited and revised by Cooper in the current publication, (especially Mr. Withers costume, yikes) as those details are not paramount to the story. Though this is unlikely, as some of her more recently published works still struggle in portraying indigenous cultures accurately and sensitively.
The Dark is Rising Readathon is a scheduled readathon that encourages readers to read along in a “true timeline” of the books, so I won’t be due for the next one until Christmastime. (and if I do it right, it will stretch into 2021 by the final book! I might not last that long, though. I really want to dig in.) So until then!