I Captured the Castle by Dodie Smith


Based on a good recommendation for classic young adult fiction, I finished reading I Captured the Castle by Dodie Smith and I can’t get it out of my head. The characters came to life in the 1930s of the English countryside.

Dodie Smith wrote A Hundred and One Dalmatians. It’s such a wonderful story, and almost everyone knows it by heart. There’s a special place for it in my life as the owner of two five-year-old Dalmatians. Their own story is much in the style of Dodie Smith’s saga of rags to riches. Sam rescued our Scooby from a trailer crouched inside a crate after kerosene had been poured over his skin to get rid of fleas. Lucy was a trade for two nanny goats that found their way back to the farm but Lucy was ours for better or worse. As she lays on the bed with her head on the pillow, I know she’s got it good.

The narrator of I Captured the Castle is a precocious 14-year-old. Perhaps I have something for this kind of strong female pubescent lead character. Much as I enjoyed Rooster Cogburn and his cronies, the story of True Grit belongs to Mattie Ross.

Cassandra Mortmain narrates her family’s travails in her notebook and keeps a journal to chronicle the eccentric activities of her father, the essential paper tiger. A one hit wonder with an obfuscating literary book published many years ago, Cassandra’s father fails as a breadwinner and the females in the family conspire to generate household income and their best option is marrying off her older sister to the new rich American neighbor.

This premise doesn’t reveal the surprise and ambiguous ending to the tale, and it is all about the means towards a better end that makes it a fun and light summer read. What lingers long after the reading is the way Dodie Smith wrote about the confusions of first loves and how one loves another who doesn’t return the affection and how another loves you and you can’t reciprocate. Confusing? She captures that female whirlspinning sensation remarkably and it seems so timeless.

The male characters are three dimensional and Cassandra’s younger brother Stephen wins my heart. So too the young man servant orphaned into their family; Cassandra is not taken with his godlike beauty and finds him a bit daft. But the father character is so fantastic that I won’t give much away here. He is a portrait of so many tortured writers who will never be authors.

A widower, once accused of threatening to kill his wife with a butter knife and sent to prison, he remarried an aesthetic muse in Topaz, a beauty whose images adorned the walls of museums. But he hasn’t written a second book. He doesn’t do anything but read cheap detective novels all day long. Now a penniless country bumpkin instead of a London diva, Topaz cannot arouse him to write. It is the American widow who arrives and intellectually stimulates him to change his behavioral oddities and replace them with other peculiarities.

I am reminded of the same kind of writing agility of Willa Cather in her depiction of the professor in The Professor’s House. The skill required to convey the gender and age and human frailties of these men is impressive for any writer. Each character has a distinctive voice and personality.

Cassandra and her brother conspire with insights derived from the new fangled theory proposed by Freud to make their father work. Cassandra can’t help but want to free her sister from a loveless marriage to support the family because she has fallen in love with her sister’s fiancee. If only her father would make a living! Parent-Trap meets Petticoat Junction on a Monty Python set. Hilarious.

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Filed under Children's Literature, Good Fiction, Just one good reader, True Grit: Book and Movie Adaptations

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