The first impression of Great-aunt Dymphna was that she was more like an enormous bird than a great-aunt. This was partly because she wore a black cape, which seemed to flap behind her when she moved. Then her nose stuck out of her thin wrinkled old face like a very hooked beak. On her head she wore a man’s tweed hat beneath which straggled wispy white hair. Under the cape she wore a shapeless long black dress. And on her feet, in spite of its being a fine warm evening, were rubber boots.
The children gazed at their great-aunt, so startled by her appearance that the polite greetings they would have made vanished from their minds. Naomi was so scared that, though tears went on rolling down her cheeks, she did not make any more noise. Great-aunt Dymphna had turned her attention to the luggage.
“Clutter, clutter! I could never abide clutter. What have you got in all this?”
“Mummy didn’t know what we’d need,” Penny explained, “so she said we’d have to bring everything.”
“Well, as it’s here we must take it home, I suppose,” said Great-aunt Dymphna. “Bring it to the car.” She turned and, like a great black eagle, swept out of the door.
The four Gareth children, from 13-year old Alex down to 9-year-old Naomi, feel a bit like they’ve been dropped into Oz.
Actually, they’re in Ireland. They’ve come to live with Great-aunt Dymphna while their mother hastily travels to
Bangkok to be with their father, suddenly taken ill. They’ve never met Dymphna before, but within hours they’ve decided she’s mad as a coot! This is a woman who chats with dogs and roars unpleasantries at bicyclists as she careens wildly down the road in her large, decrepit black Austin. A woman whose house is a creepy, ramshackle collection of odds and ends. A woman who thinks seagulls talk to her, deliver messages from England even.
On top of that, she doesn’t seem to have any notion of taking care of them; seems to believe they ought to be able to manage everything — cooking, catching fish for dinner, clothes-washing — on their own. Dymphna certainly does not have a sympathetic bone in her body for namby-pamby, useless children who can’t figure things out for themselves!
So, this little stay turns into a mighty strugglesome adventure. And, to make matters worse…much, much worse… a mysterious boy pops up and turns to them for shelter. He’s hiding from dangerous people, he says! Who is this boy? Who is after him? How can the Gareths manage their own needs, provide for him, and keep him a secret from Dymphna?
Noel Streatfeild is best known for her “Shoes” books. This book is quite different in flavor from Ballet Shoes, the only other book of hers I’ve read. Great-aunt Dymphna is one of the most eccentric, delightful characters I’ve come across. As out-of-control, brutally honest, and callous as she is, I really, really like her. I love the straightforward expectation of all the folks in this small Irish village that kids these ages ought to be quite independent and capable, thank you very much. I love the way the Gareth children grow to see things from a different perspective, even a perspective as unusual as Dymphna’s.
Great summer read — funny, mysterious, exciting, unpredictable, whacky. The pen-and-ink illustrations are by the masterful Edward Ardizzone — so of course they’re perfect. Read this aloud to young elementary kids who are good listeners, or give it to folks age 10 and up to read themselves.
Here’s an Amazon link: Magic Summer