May 2005

Gordon McAlpin


The Wind on the Moon by Eric Linklater

Eric Linklater's 1944 Carnegie Medal-winning children's novel, The Wind on the Moon, begins its meandering story-line as Major Palfrey is set to leave his two daughters, Dinah and Dorinda, and his wife to join the wars. His mischievous daughters promise to keep out of trouble, but a proverbial ill wind blowing over the moon dooms them to bad behavior for the next year. After their father leaves, the girls take advantage of their ineffectual mother and eat until they become so fat they resemble balloons, causing the other children in town to make fun of them mercilessly. They then cry the pounds away until they're as thin as match-sticks, and they are once again the subject of ridicule. Mrs. Taper, the draper's wife, chases our girls in order to "strike" them, as one does with matches, but runs into a clothesline and, in doing so, manages to get arrested for allegedly attempting to steal a pair of stockings.

Soon Mrs. Taper's case comes to trial and in one of Linklater's wittiest moments, the Judge instructs his jury that "according to British Law, the verdict must be decided by you. Guilty or Not Guilty: one or the other. If you decide that Mrs. Taper is Guilty, then the wretched woman will go to prison, as she so richly deserves. If you decide she is Not Guilty, then I shall have to set her free and she'll continue to go round the country stealing silk stockings wherever she can find them. I shall say nothing, however, to influence you in any way."

Still sore from their poor treatment as little fatties, Dinah and Dorinda decide to exact their revenge by enlisting the local witch to make a potion that will turn them into kangaroos, so they can run amok in town. While wreaking havoc, though, they get captured by the zookeeper and realize that they've lost the second potion that changes them back into little girls, so they beginning to hatch an escape plan, even as they become entwined in a mystery: someone has been stealing ostrich eggs!

The girls come upon a key to all the cages in the zoo, and they begin to deliberate about whom they should free in order to retrieve their potion and effect their own escape. "Let me out," the falcon cries from his cage, "and I shall find your bottle. I have eyes that can see a heron standing stilly in the shadow of a rock five miles away. I can see the eyes of a field-mouse shining in the ling when I am so high above that you could see me only as a mote in the sky. I can see fish moving on the bottom of the sea, and the vole running in tunnels of the heather. Give me freedom to mount the sky, and from a great height I shall search for ten miles around and find you bottle in less than two days from now." Alright, already.

It's unfortunate that the handful of sparkling moments are too infrequent to recommend the book with much enthusiasm. Linklater, who was a sniper during a World War I, misses the mark by wasting whole paragraphs at a time on dialogue or exposition that could be handled in single sentences. This isn't necessarily a troubling thing, but the author is neither funny enough nor poetic enough to justify his long-windedness. Chapters fly by with a few smiles cracked, and eventually the identity of the thief is revealed -- but not through either the efforts of Dinah and Dorinda or Mr. Parker, a giraffe who fancies himself a detective. The falcon simply flies over the zoo and happens to witness the thief in action, rendering much of the preceding chapters utterly pointless. And the worst is yet to come.

Having "solved" the mystery of the egg their, our two young kangaroos escape the zoo with their new friends the Silver Falcon and the Puma, and Dinah and Dorinda transform back into little girls before setting out on a new, grander adventure. Upon learning that their father was being held in Count Hulagu Bloot's dungeon in Bombardy, the girls set out to rescue him with the help of Mr. Corvo, their Bombardy-born dance instructor; the Falcon; and the Puma. But short of actually rescuing their father, the girls and their friends simply show up in time to get captured and imprisoned along with him, only to be rescued by a deus ex machina. When you think about it, their father would have been rescued had the girls not snuck out of their home, leaving their poor mother at home to fret without so much as a note.

If its heroines had actually had more to do with the turn of events throughout the tale, The Wind on the Moon might have been a terrifically fun short story, but this is sadly not the case. At 376 pages, including some uninspired illustrations by Nicolas Bentley, Wind is far more often tedious than it is clever. Overwritten and underplotted, it is a frustrating example of squandered potential, of an author more in love with the sound of his voice than with telling an engaging story.

The Wind on the Moon by Eric Linklater
The New York Review Children's Collection
ISBN 1590171004
376 pages