Friday, March 23, 2007

Emma Tupper's Diary--Peter Dickinson

This is one of my favorite childhood books. I was thrilled to find the same edition I read as a kid in a thrift several years ago, and it is one of the keepers from the huge book stash. Published in 1971, its themes and plot have come around again, and a smart production company should scoop it up for a film adaptation. Update the story slightly, transplant the setting to the Finger Lakes, Michigan's Upper Peninsula or Minnesota, and you will have a hit.

Emma Tupper has grown up in Botswana, and now at 14 she's a student at an English boarding school. Her father has arranged for her to spend her summer break with distant cousins she's never met, the McAndrews, in the Scottish Highlands at the ancestral family home. Emma's goal is have an interesting summer that she can chronicle it in her diary and win a school prize (I was a student at an American boarding school, and I can tell you that even in the 1990s we did weird shit like this). Emma's got a cool intellectual independence that makes her a great foil for the McAndrews--imperious and bossy Andy, removed Finn, and rebellious Roddy. The McAndrews start the summer on a low note with news that the family liniment company is failing, and it seems like it will be a quiet summer of sailing, sun and nature walks when inspiration hits.

Since the loch is said to hold a monster like Loch Ness, and since there's a Victorian era mini submarine in the shed that would be usable with a little rehab, and since Andy got dumped by a tv journalist who didn't think he was all that grand, and since they have nothing else pressing to do, why not concoct a con by decking the sub out as a sea creature, inviting the journalist up, and see what happens? And that's what they do. And it would have been great fun, had Roddy and Emma not taken the sub out at night and discovered that there is something special about the loch.

So we have an awesomely outrageous adventure tale with ecological themes, and very snarky British humor. I love this bit where Andy instructs Emma on the family history:

"You see, Cousin Emma," said Andy, "there was this Russian prince who fell in love with your grandmother when he spied her from afar at a Highland Gathering at Balmoral. Instantly, he insinuated himself into the bosom of the family, disguised as a --"

"Labrador retriever?" said Emma, seizing the moment when Andy was slopping a spoonful of fruit into his mouth. She had noticed all the McAndrews using the pauses of eating as a method of thinking up their next lie without seeming to hesitate.

"Shut up. You have no soul, you beastly Saxon. Romance means nothing to you. He disguised himself as a second under-footman, so great was the sacrifice he was prepared to make for love. He paid secret court to your grandmother, poor foolish girl. Her heart was won. The night was fixed. The carriage was ordered, with muffled wheels. A sloop waited at Mallaig, ready to whisk them back to the splendors of the imperial Court. With a beating heart she waited at her window. Came the rattle of hooves on the bridge. Head high, she walked into the dark and climbed up beside the driver. One kiss, then the whip cracked and they were away."

"How super," sighed Miss Newcombe.

"It wasn't as super as all that, actually. Her clock was fast and she'd climbed up beside a travelling trouser salesman called Tupper, who hadn't been having much luck in the Highlands because of our preference for the kilt. He only stopped to ask the way, but after that kiss--"

Andy made the mistake of stopping for another mouthful. Emma, who normally lived in a world of facts, suddenly felt that she could do it too.

"Let me guess the rest," she said. "Everybody in the house rushed wildly in pursuit and was never seen again. The Russian had gone away to prepare for the elopement, and now when he arrived at the right time he found the house empty. So he just waited. He waited for years, and in the end he married and had two boys and a girl. He's still alive, but he has to pretend to be interested in beetles so he can go away to Geneva when anybody comes who might notice his Russian accent. Why don't you all go back to Moscow and claim the throne of the Czars? I'm going to have a double helping of my cream. Will you please tell me the real story some time, Mary?" (54-55)

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