Apologies that this is a day late but there was a scheduling issue and I only realised very late on Wednesday night – I blame a)work and b) the Christmas decorations that needed putting up yesterday – F.
The Adventurous Four was first published in 1941, by George Newnes Ltd. I have the 5th edition published in 1946 by the same publisher. Illustrations (pen and ink, subtitled) are by E.H. Davie. My copy does not have its dust jacket, but the 1st edition dust jacket (illustration also by E.H Davie) is reproduced below. This image is interesting and is very similar in style to public information posters of the time.
Unusually for a Blyton adventure, this is set very clearly in a then contemporary context, namely that of Britain at war. Mary, Jill (twins, of course – what was this Blyton obsession with twins about?) and their brother Tom, aged twelve – the girls appear to be younger – are on holiday ‘in a little fishing village on the north-east coast of Scotland’. Their father is serving in the RAF and their mother spends all day knitting (knitting e.g. socks and scarves for troops being commonplace during the war). The children befriend a local boy, Andy, who, at fourteen, is already working with his father as a fisherman. It’s agreed that Andy will take the children to a local island on his father’s boat.
Because they plan to stay overnight they take plenty of warm clothes, rugs, food (including tinned sausages – yummy!) and even a gramophone, which turns out to be important. The overnight stay was meant to be the adventure, but of course there is more than that to come. The children’s voyage runs into a storm, marooning them on an unknown island. With their ship unusable, Andy’s skills at fishing and creating shelter become vital to the children’s survival. Also, fortunately, there has been at some time a village on the island, and the deserted buildings are a source of building materials and even potatoes and beans which are still growing in abandoned gardens.
However, it soon becomes clear that there are people still in the vicinity, when the children find a store of tinned food in a cave (as always in Blyton adventures, a handy food supply is never far away) on a second nearby island and, soon after, they spot sea planes. These planes give us the first indication of what we are up against for “the sign of the crooked cross was painted on each wing – the sign of the enemy, the foes of half the world”. In fact, the children’s island is one of three and after some arduous exploration they find that on the third island there is natural harbour in which a fleet of Nazi submarines is concealed. Tom takes a series of photos, to have proof if and when they manage to escape, which they hope to do in a dinghy stolen from the enemy.
Unfortunately, the children’s dinghy is spotted by a seaplane and they decide to leave that night, under cover of darkness, to try to reach the mainland. But Tom discovers he has left his camera with its vital evidence in the food cave. Overwhelmed with guilt he takes the dinghy on his own to reclaim the camera, but is caught by the Nazis (the illustration shows some menacing but extraordinarily young soldiers) who imprison him in the cave. The other children realise what must have happened, and of course no longer have the dinghy to escape so as Andy says “we have to be brave now. We are British children, and so we have plenty of courage and heaps of ideas”.
Although Tom has pretended to the soldiers that he is alone, they are suspicious and arrive to search the children’s island. Using sand and seaweed they disguise themselves as rocks on the shore. This leads to tense moments, as one soldier stops and smokes a cigarette right next to Andy. But the camouflage is perfect – even fooling a seagull who pecks Andy, almost causing him to yell out. The soldiers depart and the children are safe for now. But what should they do?
That night Andy swims and wades over to the second island and makes contact with Tom. Together they form a plan of escape. Because Tom has been singing the tune on one of the gramophone records, Andy has the brainwave that they could use the gramophone to deceive the guards into thinking that Tom was still in the cave, even after he had escaped. The next night he returns to the cave, bringing the gramophone and record, and he and Tom dig their way out by enlarging an air hole. The trick with the gramophone works perfectly and the boys re-join the girls on the first island. Now, they set about a new plan of escape, this time trying to mend their wrecked ship but just as they have made it seaworthy the soldiers return and catch all four children. They take the ship but Andy is still defiant and as the soldiers leave he shakes his fist, crying “You think you can beat a Scots boy but you can’t. I’ll beat you yet!”
Andy’s strength of spirit rallies the other children and he formulates a new plan, to build a raft out of the wood and other remnants of the deserted village. This is a difficult undertaking in itself, but the more so as their work in progress must be hidden from the soldiers who arrive from time to time to check on the children and give them (thankfully) supplies of food. They complete the raft, but it is not big enough for all four of them, and the girls must stay on the island, feigning ignorance of the boys’ whereabouts when the soldiers arrive. The departure on the raft is what is depicted on the jacket illustration.
The boys set off, but conditions on the raft are very hard, especially when a storm comes, and then a seaplane appears overhead. The enemy? No, it has a British insignia and when it lands the pilot is none other than Tom, Mary and Jill’s father (this does seem a rather unlikely coincidence). Once rescued, the boys explain about the submarines and this is subsequently relayed to higher authority. Interestingly, they have no need of the photos to make themselves believed, so Tom’s disastrous mission to rescue the camera appears to have been unnecessary. Meanwhile, the girls dissimulate to the soldiers but when the British planes arrive to rescue them they take them to be the enemy and hide in the food cave. However, they are found by Tom and his father and rescued. As they leave in the seaplane, a fleet of British warships arrives to destroy the submarine base.
The children are reunited with their families and Mary’s father makes a rousing speech to her about the need to fight evil and the pride that the children should take in having done so. But Andy is desperately worried about what the loss of their fishing boat will mean for his family, who depend on it for their livelihood. Fortunately, in recognition of his valour the government present him with a fine new boat, called the Andy, and there the story ends.
This is probably my favourite Blyton adventure, for two reasons. Firstly, it has more realism than any other of her adventures that I am aware of in terms of a specific historical context, and there’s also a high degree of attention to practicalities (fishing, raft-building etc.) in a way unusual in Blyton. It is certainly more realistic than the Famous Five, or even the Adventure series. Even reading it as an adult it stands up as quite a tense thriller. The tone is also more sombre than her other books and it is worth recalling that in 1941 the way that German submarines were preying on British shipping was a major crisis, as anyone reading the book at the time would have known. There is no sense, for example, of this adventure being ‘jolly good fun’: they know and we know that it is serious. Secondly, Andy is one of her strongest characters and, unlike in many other cases, a regional, working-class child is treated not just with respect but is the hero. The successful routing of the enemy simply wouldn’t have been possible without his determination and skills. This is real ‘we’re all in it together’ stuff and with it Blyton made her own contribution to the war effort.