If you are a fan of classic children’s literature of the style of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and even Enid Blyton (and let’s face it, who isn’t?) then I will be pleased to introduce you to another author who definitely belongs within the ranks of these writers, but of whom you have probably never heard. Today’s book is The Song of Seven by Tonke Dragt, which was first published in 1967 under the title De Zevensprong, in the original Dutch. We were lucky enough to receive a copy from Allen & Unwin for review – a copy which Laura Watkinson has ably translated for its release in English and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
At the end of every schoolday, new teacher Mr Van der Steg entertains his pupils with tall tales of incredible events, which he claims really happened to him – involving hungry lions and haunted castles, shipwrecks and desert islands. One day, when he can’t think of anything suitably exciting to tell them, he invents a story about a very important letter which he’s expecting that evening, with news of a perilous mission. Evening arrives and so, to his surprise, does an enigmatic letter…
And so Mr Van der Steg is drawn into a real-life adventure, featuring a grumpy coachman, a sinister uncle, eccentric ancestors, a hidden treasure, an ancient prophecy and Geert-Jan, a young boy who is being kept prisoner in the mysterious House of Stairs. Although the treasure rightfully belongs to Geert-Jan, his uncle is determined to seize it for himself. As Mr Van der Steg, with the help of his pupils, sets out to rescue the boy, he becomes more and more entangled with the strange history of the Seven Ways, the House of Stairs and the powerful Conspiracy of Seven.
Read it if:
*you are a fan of classic old children’s literature in the vein of C. S. Lewis’s early Narnia tales
*you can’t go past a story that involves a tricky riddle, a grand old house and getting out of school work to listen to stories
*you are the type of person who, when a complete stranger turns up to your house in a mysterious coach in the night and tells you to hop in, would probably put down your hot chocolate, kick off your bunny slippers and climb aboard
*you’ve ever been invited to an illicit party that really brought the house down
After having put Dragt’s The Letter for the King and The Secrets of the Wild Wood on my TBR list when they first came out, but never having got to reading them, I was excited to see The Song of Seven released, not least because it’s a standalone novel. It took me a couple of chapters of delightfully vintage-feeling prose before I looked at the publishing information to find that rather than just being vintage-feeling, the text actually was vintage! I must applaud Laura Watkinson, the translator, for recreating that nostalgic tone of great children’s literature of times gone by in this contemporary English release, because the story just oozes retro charm.
The most interesting thing about this book for young readers is that the protagonist, Frans van der Steg (or Frans the Red, as he calls himself when telling stories to his class) is an adult, and more than that, a schoolteacher! It’s so rare to find contemporary children’s stories that aren’t told from a child’s perspective these days that it certainly made the book immediately stand out for me as something different, and perhaps even timeless, as no doubt to a child, an adult is an adult is an adult, no matter what historical period you find them in. In fact, apart from the supporting cast of Frans’ class and Geert-Jan, the boy confined in the House of Stairs, all of the main characters are adults. This collection of unlikely companions makes up a group of conspirators, who are invested in dealing with the prophecy connected with the House of Stairs, and Geert-Jan himself.
While the vintage tone of the book was definitely refreshing and cosy to fall in to, I did find that there were a lot of chapters in which not a lot happened. The author seems to delight in leaving Frans the Red in the lurch, and just when it seems he is about to make a breakthrough regarding the conspiracy, his fellow conspirators decide not to tell him, or something happens to ensure that the next key piece of information is left dangling, like a carrot on a stick, for Frans and the reader to chase.
Once Frans makes it into the House of Stairs as Geert-Jan’s tutor, however, the pace begins to pick up and we are treated to yet more oddball adult characters, as well as a setting that must be seen to be believed. The climax of the tale comes together quite quickly and it is an exciting and unexpected ending that balances out the slower pace of the first half of the story. Throughout the book there is a definite sense of magical realism lurking behind the ordinary happenings, the fact that one of the characters is a magician notwithstanding. Even though I wouldn’t class this as a typical fantasy book, there is an undeniable undercurrent of the uncommon and extraordinary between the lines of each page.
If you have a confident, independent reader in your dwelling who isn’t afraid to solve a riddle, and wishes that their classroom teacher would spend a good portion of each day telling stories, then you should definitely nudge The Song of Seven in their general direction. If you are an adult fan of books for young readers and you love a book where the magic is in the nuance of the story, then I can’t recommend this one highly enough.
Until next time,