There is a great deal of the author in this book and it clearly draws on her own memories of the period leading up to the Second World War. Her father was a physiologist and the central character has a father who is a doctor. Ibbotson went to Dartington Hall School, which has transferred itself to the book as Delderton Hall. Bergania, the small European country that features in the book is not unlike parts of Austria, from which Ibbotson originated.
This reliance on her own experience allows Ibbotson to draw a compelling and realistic backdrop to a simple and powerful tale about friendship. True, it is aimed at a readership just reaching double figures, and once or twice points out things that an adult reader will long since have understood, but that does not hurt the book in any way. It does not talk down to its readers, it never breaks off a well paced story to fill in background detail, and it relishes the portraits it paints of the characters involved.
Tally, a young London girl is offered a scholarship to a school in Devon. Although she does not want to leave her father and aunts, she reluctantly agrees to go and soon discovers that not all private schools are the same. Delderton is a progressive school and there she blossoms. As a person whose only worries are for other people she is the driving force behind a cultural visit to a Europe on the brink of war and aids the escape of a prince from a country about to be overrun by the German army. Back in England they discover that fascists can be found in all walks of life and the prince must escape once again.
This manages to be an exciting story with welcome overtones of the anarchic humour of her ghost books. The characters are broadly sketched, yet have a core of realism that prevents them becoming grotesque. And it is packed with an impassioned view of the world that argues for the kind of education and upbringing that is all too often dismissed, especially by people who have no real knowledge of education. Yet that is never a lecture. Rather it forms an essential part of the story.
I can heartily recommend this to all adults, and especially those with children as it is not only a good read in its own right but comes from an author who can provide a bridge from the fantastical (do read her ghost books if you haven’t yet) to the magical in the everyday and sometime grim real world.