We left off on an almost literal cliffhanger at the end of my last post, with Julian and his caravan about to be pushed off the hill by Tiger Dan and Lou the acrobat. Shall we see what happens next? (And see all the nitpicks and ‘interesting’ points I can raise as well).
Well of course he doesn’t plunge to his death
I don’t think that’s really a spoiler, is it? There wouldn’t be sixteen more books if Julian had pegged it on (or rather off of) Merran Hill. I mean they could have brought in a distant cousin or a surprise sibling, but it’s Enid Blyton, not a soap opera.
Dan and Lou stop short of the edge of the hill, obviously their plan was not to destroy the caravan. But what is their plan? Why move a heavy caravan just to get at a heathery patch of ground exactly the same as the surrounding heathery ground? Well, Julian up on the caravan roof is just as intrigued, especially when they seem to disappear all of a sudden.
Julian falls asleep (poor show!) and wakes when they reappear with two sacks. He has no idea where they went, and neither will we, for a while.
Going deeper underground
Of course the Five investigate under the caravan, managing between them and Nobby and Pongo to move it.
“Look! Boards under the heather!”
“Laid neatly across and across. What for?”
“Pull them up!”
Well, there’s only a flipping secret tunnel smack-bang underneath the boys’ caravan! The first foray is a brief one – Julian and Nobby go down to retrieve Pongo but Julian’s torch gives out.
But the Five aren’t easily dissuaded, and gamely buy a new supply of torches. Underground it’s a simple matter of following a few dropped cigarette butts and matches to find a haul of stolen goods, and of one page worth’s discussion for them to work out the whole scheme Dan and Lou employ for stealing and hiding the stuff.
What’s not so simple is getting back above ground again…
In a chilling moment the Five and Nobby discover the hole has been covered over while they’ve been exploring. I blame George and her insistence at exploring a bit further instead of heading back to report everything to the police.
They spend an uncomfortable afternoon/evening in the caves, broken only by trying to escape down an underground stream and a visit from Pongo, before Dan and Lou come to collect the goods.
The children are herded along into a further cave while the men start removing the stolen items, and then it’s Dick’s turn to do the brave thing. While Pongo has the men distracted in a brawl Dick escapes the caves and tells the others to hide away. He closes the hole over as best he can and races off to the farm to summon help.
As a part of the series
So far we have had summer, winter and spring in Kirrin, and then a spring not-at-Kirrin. This is the first summer away from Kirrin. As much as I love Kirrin it is nice to have them explore new places – there’s only so many secret passages you can reasonably put in one place. Books one, two and four are set so that there are ‘safe’ adults around regularly, keeping the children from doing anything too wild or dangerous. The third book we lose the safe adults but they are still close to home. This is the first book they are off completely alone for any length of time.
It’s the first idyllic travelling/wandering book in the series; later they will go on bike rides, hikes and camps that will echo the pattern of warm days, lazy picnics, bathing in lakes and streams and exploration.
This story could be split into either three or four parts. Part one while they are at Julian’s home and their time travelling to Merran Lake (that could be divided into two as they are quite different), part two would be the initial camping and run ins with Dan and Lou and part three covering the underground portion and the resolution.
Signs of the times
All the Famous Five books are very ‘of their time’ when you think about it. Aunt Fanny picks the children up in a pony-trap from Kirrin Station, there are galoshes, cars with luggage-holes, and of course a lack of modern technology!
I did notice quite a few things in this book that very much marked its place in time, though.
The Five borrow a horse from the milkman to pull one of their caravans. Milk delivery is not that common in the UK today (though I think it’s making a come-back in some places, due to people wanting to use glass bottles instead of plastic) let alone milk delivered by a horse and cart. Likewise, the children then lend the horses to a farmer to help with the farm-work, and the police use a horse and cart to transport the stolen goods back to the station at the end of the story.
Julian’s father gives them a little book containing a list of farms which will sell eggs, milk and other supplies and allow people to camp on their land. If this was published today it would have to be a list of farm-shops and official camp sites, rather than a list of farmer’s wives selling goods in her kitchen and then pointing to a grassy field where there’s no charge for camping.
The children arrange for the nearest post office to Merran Lake to take in any post that arrives for them. I bet they didn’t have to fill in forms or pay for such a convenient service either.
George’s ‘I’m as good as a boy’ attitude isn’t constantly in the forefront of all the stories, despite being an important facet of her character. It crops up now and again – mostly when people mistake her for a boy and she is pleased or when Julian tries to put her in her place as a girl and she is furious.
Five Go Off in a Caravan makes a few references to her perceived gender, though she doesn’t make a big deal about any of it, though it comes in useful near the end.
The text notes that she packs like a boy, as she says they’ll want to take nothing but night things.
She insists on driving caravan as it’s ‘man’s job’, (though Anne points out she’s a girl, not even a boy let alone a man). She doesn’t bother about washing dishes or other household chores, says Anne. George notes she does feel guilty about this especially when Anne says (she’s bragging really) about all she does for them in the caravans. George hasn’t even made her own bed.
Interestingly Nobby recognises George as a girl and calls her a lady when speaking to Pongo, and she doesn’t correct him. I noticed then that Timmy refers to her as mistress in his doggy thoughts, and has done all along.
Lou mistakes George for a boy and she is pleased, never mind the serious situation they’re in at the time! To be fair it muddies the water. They’re looking for two boys and two girls plus Nobby. They have what they think are two boys, one girl and Nobby. They’re not expecting a girl to have escaped or gone off alone. Though Dan and Lou have met the children a few times, and would have noticed there were apparently three boys and a girl. Anyway, at the end Lou demands an explanation from Nobby:
“So there was only one girl!” he said. “What did you want to tell me there were two boys and two girls for?” he said to Nobby.
“Because there were,” answered Nobby. He pointed to george. “She’s a girl, though she looks like a boy. And she’s as good as a boy any day.”
General questions, comments and nitpicks
This is the first time we ‘meet’ Julian’s mother. Father is mostly absent but he contributes the farm map/booklet ‘off’ screen’. Mother helps them plan/pack/organise their trip and would like to go along (a half-joke).
It takes them five days to reach Merran Lake, and presumably would take five days to get back as they didn’t laze around an awful lot at all. I assume it’s a long holiday, as if it was just a fortnight they’d spend less time at Merran Lake than one leg of the travel! I suppose the travelling is half the fun, camping up at a different place each night.
The children make a point of saying they would only take drinking water from a spring, not a stream. I’m not 100% sure of the difference between spring and a stream that appears from underground – or how you would definitely identify them! Similarly I struggle with the term hollow when not meaning a hollow tree or a hollow victory. It seems to be one of those words used in certain regions – there are plenty of camps and places with hollow in the name. I guess it’s a dip or depression creating a sheltered space but I find it hard to imagine.
Hollow or no hollow I end up picturing the camp set up totally wrongly. The books says At the front of the hollow was a rocky ledge, hung with heathery tufts. That clearly describes (as pictured below) a flat rocky ledge at the edge of the hillside, overlooking the lake. I imagined a rocky bench, complete with a back to lean against running alongside the caravans and it’s hard to shift that mental picture.
I wonder where Nobby’s boat comes from? Surely they don’t lug a boat around all year, or use it as a circus prop! I also thought it a bit far that Nobby recognises and remembers the Five from their brief meeting over a week before. Surely lots of children hung over gates to watch the circus go by and talked to him. I did like Nobby signalling a twist on the baddies doing it. He uses a white shirt for ‘everything’s ok’ and he and Pongo waving red things meaning double danger.
Anne eats shredded wheat for breakfast, the first time I’ve noticed a specific product mentioned. It’s not a trademark or anything (not like she ate Frosties) but it seemed odd, to name a mass-produced product from a box when normally it’s generic sausages, porridge, vegetables etc.
Barker’s almost instant reaction to eating poisoned meat seems a bit suspect. I know snake bits etc can be rapid but he’d have to eat the meat, let it travel to his stomach, start to digest it and have the poison enter his bloodstream. There are some things like bleach that would affect you if you ate it – but generally you would notice pretty quickly and stop eating!
Pongo is as good as (or maybe better than) Timmy in terms of defending the children. He is strong, can bite, and can throw stones with great accuracy.
George has broken her torch and Julian’s runs out two minutes into exploring underground – that’s a poor show for the Five!
I asked myself this time was Dick smart or foolish to trap the men underground? He prevents them getting away so the police can catch them but in doing so relies on the others hiding long enough to keep safe. We know Dan and Lou have dreadful tempers, and crucially, a gun! Imagine what they could have done to the children upon finding themselves trapped underground!
Saying that is is a pleasing sense of deja vu as the men find themselves trapped in the exact same way the children did earlier.
A last nitpick: the text in my (1959 11th impression) reads that Dick Woke up the Mackie’s. I wonder when that mistake crept in because I can’t imagine Enid Blyton making such a heinous mistake with an erroneous apostrophe.
There are also quite a few funny moments in the story.
Julian runs straight into Dobby’s side when he and Dapple disturb the girls by bumping into their caravan in the night, and then the echo of that when Dan and Lou walk right into the caravan a few nights later.
Pongo is hugely funny. He tries shaking hands with Timmy’s tail, he hides behind his hands pretending to be chastened, and steals sweets from pockets. His looking for the ‘light’ which has ‘dropped’ out of a broken torch is funny and yet so believable too.
This is in my top 10, it’s in fifth place if you want to be exact. It balances plenty of gentle fun and enjoyment with some very hairy moments. Dan and Lou are nasty baddies while Nobby and Pongo are good sidekicks.
How do you rate the book?