Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Looking After Thomas Review

Published by Nelson in 1957, Looking After Thomas is the first of three stories starring the Waring family, who live on a fruit farm in Kent near a village called Hunting Green, seven miles from Maidstone. There are four Waring children. The oldest is Clarissa (15), and there are the twins, David and Tish (12), and the youngest brother Thomas (10). The tale is narrated by David, the straight man, as an offset to his more colourful siblings. The story begins with David explaining that his father works like a slave to make the fruit farm pay, but that they are all very happy. Due to their financial difficulties, Mrs. Waring is always engaging in economy campaigns. With the Easter break coming up, the children fear another round of cutbacks, but are saved by a letter from their Uncle James and Aunt Madeleine in Paris. The four children are invited to spend a week in the French capital. They happily accept this unexpected gift and jet off in the first chapter.
The story that follows is what readers might expect in a Jane Shaw book. In Paris they enjoy the food and the sights; they go shopping and pick up a few words of French. But there is adventure in store, with the usual series of coincidences in its wake. The children are witnesses to a bank robbery and the daring theft of a masterpiece from the Louvre. One of the suspects is a highly unlikely elderly English lady. They befriend a couple who come to Paris regularly to visit their dog’s grave. David falls into the river and Thomas receives a pair of birds and names them after his uncle and aunt. The story trundles along in typical Jane Shaw style. The children bicker but are never cruel. And, of course, everything works out in the end and a little quip rounds of the story when the children get back home.
Yet despite the typical Jane Shaw traits, Looking After Thomas is something of a departure from her normal style. First of all, the story is told in the first person, and by a boy to boot. Moreover, the boys are the main characters in the story, which is also unusual for Jane Shaw. Although Clarissa and Tish do indeed feature in the story, the main focus is on the two brothers. Prior to the Thomas books, Bill Carmichael had been the only main male character in the stories. As the 1950s progressed, more boys began to appear in the stories, such as John Mallory in the Penny stories and Pea-green in the Susan series, but they always played second fiddle to Susan, Midge and Penny. Here for the first time the boys are in the starring role and the author makes a fine job of it. David likes to think of himself as the sensible member of the family (as indeed he is). Before leaving England, Mrs. Waring makes David promise that he will look after Thomas, a promise that David takes seriously. Thomas is a bit of a handful and needs keeping in line, but the reader would be mistaken to imagine he is another Peregrine Gascoigne. Far from it. Thomas is precocious and has a number of unusual hobbies like raising tadpoles. He also has a mind of his own and can be devious and stubborn. For instance, he infuriates his brother and sisters by sneaking his fishing rod onto the plane and smuggling tadpoles into Paris, getting them through customs by a clever ruse, but he also knows when to give in and, quite unlike Peregrine Gascoigne, his heart is in the right place and he always tries to help people.
Turning to the plot, this has been meticulously mapped out. Thomas takes his fishing rod and tadpoles to Paris, but they pay handsome dividends. When going fishing along the Seine, the smell of the bait attracts a little puppy that the boys decide to give to the grieving dog owners at their hotel. David is present at the art theft but does actually see the crime. There is a daring thief at large in Paris, Le Singe (The Monkey), whom the police are anxious to lay their hands on. By clever deduction and a few inevitable coincidences, the Warings help bring him to book. The only flaw in the story is the scene where the police send Thomas as a decoy to knock on the door of the flat where the armed bank robbers are holed up. This leads to a humorous scene in which Thomas uses the only French he knows apart from merci to warn the thieves that the police are outside: Vite, les flics! (Quick, the cops!), a phrase he picked up from a movie. He explains later that he warned the thieves because he was upset at the police for putting him in the line of fire. It’s hard to believe that the French police, or police in any country, would do this, but as the book was written for a younger audience than usual, this may have been an attempt to spice the story up and make it more exciting.
As I’ve commented elsewhere, in the 1950s a book was the closest that most children came to seeing other countries. Therefore, like other books for children in those days, including Jane Shaw, this book is replete with the children’s impressions of France and how different it is from England. Clarissa is horrified by the fast cars on the wrong side of the road. Like Caroline and Sara long before, the kids are also not too keen on the continental breakfast, although David sees some merit in it:
“It was very late when I lifted the telephone next morning and ordered two caf├ęs complets s’il vous plait. That’s what you say when you want breakfast for two, and for that you get coffee (sometimes we ordered chocolate, scrumptious!) fresh rolls, butter, jam and croissants, which are a cross between rolls and pastry.”
However, less politically correct are the remarks about French hygiene. Again, David tries to make light of it but there are some little digs at the French that would not make it into print today:
“Clarissa said that the French people must be frightfully dirty never having baths, but I said no; it showed that the French people were so clean they didn’t need baths.”
Owch! But there is also a lot of comedy. My favourite scene is when Thomas keeps winning at the hoopla stall and the hoopla man tries to cheat him out of his winnings. This infuriates some onlookers and a huge fight breaks out. 
All said and done, Looking After Thomas is an excellent story, tightly plotted, with good characterisation and never a dull moment. I would give it 8 out of 10. The series proved to be successful, with two sequels: Willow Green Mystery (1958) and The Tall Man (1960). The book is 119 pages long and has 9 illustrations.