Dragons in the Waters (by Madeleine L'Engle)

I’m a little surprised to find how much I am enjoying reading Madeleine L’Engle’s books for teenagers. When we gradually acquired them for our sons, I had read the first two or three in the ‘Wrinkle’ series, but had neither the time nor inclination to try the others. However in the past few years I have been reading through the various series, interspersed with other books, and so far have liked them all.

‘Dragons in the Waters’, first published in 1976, is the one I have just finished. This is is the second book to feature Poly (or Polly) O’Keefe, daughter of the former Meg Murry who was the main character in ‘A Wrinkle in Time’. In this book, Poly is fourteen, and is travelling on a ship with her brother Charles (12) and their father, on their way to Venezuela where he is to do some scientific investigations.

However the main protagonist is Simon, a thirteen-year-old boy travelling with his cousin Forsyth Phair. Simon is an orphan who has been living with his great aunt Leonis; they have been struggling financially and she finally decided to sell a family heirloom: a large portrait of a famous explorer, which belonged to one of her ancestors. Forsyth bought it and is taking it on the same ship as the O’Keefe family, with the expressed intention of donating it to a museum.

Also on the ship are two academic women, an elderly married couple, and a musician called Mr Theo who appeared in one of the earlier books. Much of the early part of the book focuses on the various interactions between these passengers and some of the ship crew, and in particular the friendship which develops quickly between Simon, Poly and Charles. There’s an element of suspense, too; Simon nearly suffers a fatal accident just before boarding, and overhears some worrying conversations…

Although the book is about teenagers, much of the story is quite complex. There is a primitive but loving tribe connected with Simon’s ancestors. There’s also a series of old letters which his aunt reads, written by his ancestor Quentin Phair, which rather debunk the theory that he was a great hero. There’s suggestions of smuggling, and moral questions about whether some forms of smuggling are less immoral than others. And there’s a shocking incident part-way through the book which raises the tension significantly.

I thought it a good story, which was quite hard to put down in the later chapters. As with most of Madeleine L’Engle’s books it involves low-key Christian themes, but without any preaching. Simon has some excellent questions about God, and is still angry at the loss of his parents. He has been rather put off any kind of faith by a singularly unhelpful minister.

All L’Engle’s books stand alone, but it’s probably best to read this after ‘The Arm of the Starfish’, where some of the characters were introduced. Note that, unlike some of L'Engle's other books, this is not fantasy but a thriller; there are no actual dragons in the story. 

Recommended to teenagers who like an exciting read, and adults who enjoy this kind of teenage fiction.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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