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The English spring and summer of 1926, to be exact--a disillusioning, coming-of-age season for Dickinson's rather too-good-to-be-true hero here: well-bred, high-minded, brainy, athletic, handsome Tom Hankey. Vacationing in France between terms at Oxford, Tom falls hard for headstrong heiress Judy Tarrant. . . but then he's summoned home to Sillerby (a fading manse) by his butterfly-collecting father--who wants Tom, in preparation for the coming General Strike, to learn to drive the local train. Tom's willing enough (it's his chance to make up for having missed out on the Great War), while his tony Oxford classmates are interested in more drastic anti-Strike measures: Bertie Panhard's fascistic vigilante brigade, which Tom quite rightly avoids. But when the Strike does come, plucky Tom's train is ambushed by radicals; so he finds himself being rescued by those very vigilantes whose tactics he deplores. And such political/personal/ethical conflicts mount up as the weeks go by--especially when, largely in order to please Judy's tycoon mother (scourge of the dockworkers), Tom agrees to help Bertie Panhard by sleuthing among the Bolsheviks in lower-class Hull. He mingles at workers' meetings; he reads Marx; he gets arrested in a police raid (nobly winning the release of unfairly arrested workers); and, though convinced that there is indeed a real Bolshevik menace in Hull, he becomes fond of his new worker friends. . . and more than fond of leading agitator ""Red Kate"" Barnes--who's such a contrast to frivolous, games-playing Judy. Finally, then, Tom must find a way to take dramatic action without either endorsing the Bolsheviks or the oppressive Establishment: so, with help from Judy's father (a train-loving vicar), he grabs a train and illegally brings food stores down to shortage-stricken Hull. Yet, despite this grand gesture, he'll wind up disillusioned, ready to settle for married high-life with Judy, ""in no mood to believe that he had by more than a hair's breadth diminished the ignorance and intransigence of either of the two forces he had been caught between."" Dickinson (author of engagingly offbeat thrillers and children's books) does splendidly here with atmosphere, with the eccentric supporting characters, with the occasionally bizarre comic touches (Judy's mother gardens around a 50-foot model of the Jungfrau, ""adorned with knee-high metal fauna""). And the locomotive details will enchant train enthusiasts. But the more serious strains--Tom's political dilemmas, the specter of class-consciousness--never quite jibe with the nostalgic comedy; and Dickinson must resort to contrived melodrama and speechmaking in order to drive his points home. All in all, a somewhat uneasy hybrid of politics, romance, and boys'-book historical adventure--almost, if not quite, redeemed by Dickinson's elegance and charm.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1981
Publisher: Pantheon