The Otterbury IncidentFebruary 20, 2008
Because home is in New York and School is in Pennsylvania, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time on trains lately. And I should probably use that time for work, but somehow I fond it difficult to do anything at all when on trains. I’m perfectly happy to stare out the window for an hour at a time. So the books that I’ve been bringing with me for my train rides have been very frivolous: The Westing Game, Slippy McGee (Marie Conway Oemler’s books continue to fill me with glee), The Otterbury Incident…
The Otterbury Incident is the one I really wanted to talk about. It’s been one of my favorite books for years — I’m not really sure how long, exactly. For people who haven’t read the book, the most interesting thing about it will be that it was written by Cecil Day-Lewis, who was the Poet Laureate of England from 1968 to 1972, and who also happened to be the father of Daniel Day-Lewis. For those who have read the book, all that is kind of irrelevant. It’s just too good for any outside factors to be very important.
The Otterbury Incident was published in 1948, and it can’t take place more than a year or so before that, because World War II is a recent memory, but things are settling down.
The main characters of The Otterbury Incident are a bunch of schoolboys, probably mostly twelve and thirteen — at some point George says that even Ted and Toppy aren’t fourteen yet. George is the narrator, who claims to have written the story of their adventures with advice from Mr. Richards, their English teacher. George’s narrative voice, casual but overly concerned with literary conventions, is a joy to read. I once tried to write fanfiction for this book, but I didn’t have any particular story to tell; I just wanted to perfect my George voice. Ted Marshall and William Toppingham, AKA Toppy, are the generals of the two armies in the boys’ war game. They’re both natural leaders, but Ted is thoughtful and dependable and a born strategist, while Toppy is impetuous, enthusiastic, occasionally a bit cruel, and good at thinking on his feet. George is Ted’s second in command. Peter Butts, who is good at science and maybe a bit of a jerk, is Toppy’s.
The game was inspired by the Incident, a bomb site where Nick Yates’ family’s house used to stand. His parents were killed in the explosion and Nick himself was dragged out of the wreckage. He hasn’t been too bright since then, but he’s both stubborn and brave, as proved by the fact that he’s willing to play at the bomb site. He lives with his aunt and uncle now, and he’s very unhappy. The Incident is the perfect place for a war game, full of piles of rubble to hide behind and junk to build things out of.
The Incident is also a hangout for Johnny Sharp and the Wart. The Wart is from Otterbury, but Johnny Sharp arrived during the war; neither of them were in the army. Mostly they just hang out and look shifty. They condescend to the kids, and Johnny Sharp wants Ted’s sister Rose to go out with him.
The book begins with one of their battles. Toppy’s Company is to drive the tank — which the boys all made together in shop class — through the Incident without Ted’s Company managing to plant three “sticky bombs” — sticky balls that must be placed by hand — on the tank. There’s a kind of scary guy named Skinner who has a workshop across the alley from the Incident, and Ted sends George and three other boys, including Nick, to hide in Skinners yard in order to ambush the tank while Toppy’s Company are busy dealing with te rest of Ted’s men on the other side. It’s a clever plan, and it works. The boys are all pretty worked up, and as they run back to the school at the end of their lunch break, they’re kicking a football around. Nick kicks it through one of the school windows.
Nick is supposed to pay for the window, but his uncle scares him so much that Nick just can’t bring himself to say that he was the one who broke the window. So Ted’s like, don’t worry, we’ll think of something, and calls his Company together to figure out how they can raise the money. While they’re talking it over, Toppy’s Company comes by to challenge them to another battle, and Ted talks Toppy into joining the fundraising efforts by saying that they all kicked the football — it was just Nick’s bad luck that he happened to be the one who, you know, kicked it through a window. Toppy doesn’t really care about Nick, but he thinks it would be cool if they all managed to raise the money without the help of adults.
So they raise the money. I don’t want to describe how, because they do a lot of different things, but I can’t help talking about the shoeshine stand. The problem with a shoeshine stand is that it’s a beautiful day and no one is going to have muddy shoes. So they set up the stand just down the block from Rose Marshall’s shop. Rose has a cellar with a grating that opens at foot level in front of the shop, so the boys fill a flit gun with muddy water, spray it at the feet of people looking in the shop window, and suddenly there are people who really need to have their shoes shined.
Anyway: they raise the money. It is stolen. Suspicion falls on Ted. Only George, Nick, and young Wakeley stand by him — they believe Johnny Sharp and the Wart did it somehow. Soon something happens to convince Toppy that they’re right, and the boys all join forces to get their money back. It’s all very exciting, and kind of Emil and the Detectives-y, and…
I don’t know. It’s so much harder to write about a really good book than a bad one, or an okay one, or an endearingly mediocre one. I can’t do this book justice. It should be a classic. If you’ve got kids, you should buy it for them. Read it aloud. It’s so much fun. They’re kids. And they foil the grown-up villains. And yet their adventures, exciting as they are, aren’t on too unbelievable a scale. Seriously. Everyone should read this book.