Eilís Dillon Essay - Critical Essays

Dillon, Eilís


Eilís Dillon 1920–

Irish novelist for adults, young adults, and younger children, nonfiction writer, playwright, editor, and translator.

Dillon is perhaps the most respected contemporary Irish author of books for young people. Often set off the rugged western coast of Ireland, her works take place in both historical and contemporary periods. Using the vehicle of the adventure story, Dillon comments on human emotions, foibles, and motives while still maintaining narrative excitement. She treats complex themes in a natural and mature fashion, without didacticism or moralizing. Dillon's portrayals of her characters are sometimes gently chiding, but she is a compassionate, sympathetic observer, and always invests her novels with an evocative sense of the strong community that these characters share.

Dillon often deals with the consequences of adult misunderstanding and mistrust. She explores conflicts within family groups, between islanders, between islanders and mainlanders, and between locals and newcomers. Notably, although problems are caused by the obstinancy and unreliability of community males, they are solved by the women and young adults who are drawn into the situations. Dillon's young people are tough and resourceful characters; they not only face moral and social decisions as part of their maturation processes but must also deal with the harsh realities of the physical world they inhabit.

As a young girl, Dillon herself lived in a primitive coastal village near Galway. She began writing stories at an early age, which she says has accounted for her prolificacy in writing for a young audience. Living in Italy for six years resulted in several books set there for young children, in recent well-received historical titles such as Living in Imperial Rome which are presented in story form, and in fictional works such as The Shadow of Vesuvius which incorporate historical facts within their storylines. Dillon has written several mysteries and fictional works for adults which use Irish history as their basis.

Dillon has said that she writes all her books by concentrating on characters and background rather than on plot, since the plot develops naturally out of those elements. Ironically, she has been criticized for the calculation and self-indulgence of her plots, although her delineation of character and evocative settings are uniformly praised as is the excellence of her writing style. She is also felt to have done much to define the unique personality and lifestyle of the Irish people she describes. Above all, however, she is a storyteller, and many critics and young readers alike agree that she has this gift of her heritage in abundance. A Herd of Deer won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1970. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 2.)

The opening situation of Miss Dillon's story of (mainly) gentle villainy [The San Sebastian] is promising. When Pat Harnon finds and salvages a drifting brig on the shore of his Connemara home mystery amply fills the air. A drifting castaway brought in on the same current turns out to be a mysterious foreigner who seeks a ship of the same description but fears some other mysterious foreigners who turn out to be trawlermen out for his blood. His disappearance and the subsequent kidnapping of Pat are the prelude to a prolonged battle of wits—and even to physical combat—after which all is peace and contentment…. Miss Dillon writes well enough to make an unlikely story at least plausible…. Suspense is well maintained and the characters, though elliptical rather than round, are real enough to give the book some distinction among the more material kinds of story.

"For Children from Ten to Fourteen: 'The San Sebastian'," in The Junior Bookshelf, Vol. 17, No. 5, November, 1953, p. 238.

In The San Sebastian perception of the exterior world is never lulled asleep, the landscapes are no longer those of the imagination but lie geographically vivid in Ireland and Brittany; the people are differentiated, and are felt to live of themselves even when the narrative is not concerned with them. Yet, perhaps because its setting is a fishing village hardly changed for centuries, it has the strength of legend as well as the stamp of life.

"Could It Really Happen?" in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1953; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2704, November 27, 1953, p. XVI.

Virginia Haviland

This exciting young novel [The Lost Island] … is unique in many ways. With an authentic background of town and country living and Irish belief in the supernatural, Mrs. Dillon starts Michael Farrell and a friend off on a rugged search for Michael's father, believed missing on the "lost island" of Inishmanann …, where a treasure was supposed to lie. The story is not one of fantasy, however, but wholly real…. Beginning quietly with an ordinary market day, the book gathers speed and holds the reader enthralled to its conclusion.

Virginia Haviland, "Summer Booklist: 'The Lost Island'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyrighted, 1954, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XXX, No. 4, August, 1954, p. 251.

Lillian Morrison

["The San Sebastian"] is a book in the "Treasure Island" tradition, with the boy hero who tells the story, the good sea atmosphere, the exciting and mysterious happenings, and the colorful characters. Unlike "Treasure Island," however, it is contemporary Irish in setting and flavor…. The style is pleasant, the village life and the village people are well portrayed, and Pat's adventures with a couple of exotic villains provide the kind of action and suspense younger teen-agers enjoy.

Lillian Morrison, "For the Teen Age: 'The San Sebastian'," in The Saturday Review (copyright © 1954 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXVII, No. 46, November 13, 1954, p. 94.

Pamela Whitlock

The best story of the yarn-spinning, come-gather-round-and-listen kind, is The House on the Shore…. From the time when Jim comes walking barefoot down the mountain to the strange village by the sea to find his uncle, to the final life and death chase in sailing boats across the night sea, there is no let-up of the tension [in The House on the Shore]. It is fine story-telling, by a writer who never fails to record just the sort of details that children want from each scene; whose every character is lively and round. There are several authors producing good, well-worked-out adventure stories today. Eilis Dillon should be noticed for being, imaginatively, a jump ahead of the rest of them.

Pamela Whitlock, "Summer Books for Children: 'The House on the Shore'," in The Spectator (© 1955 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 195, No. 6628, July 8, 1955, p. 51.

Margaret Sherwood Libby

"The House on the Shore" is full of suspense, exciting, often melodramatic. Boys of the hero's age (sixteen) or somewhat younger should delight in the adventurous deeds of Jim O'Malley…. The plot is good, with unexpected twists and reversals, and sure-fire elements such as stolen treasure, a tree hideaway, a secret chimney-room, vengeful villagers and a grim sea race. The atmosphere of the Irish sea-coast village and its people dominates and gives depth to this sturdy tale, quite in the "Kidnapped" tradition.

Margaret Sherwood Libby, "For Boys and Girls: 'The House on the Shore'," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission),...

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Virginia Haviland

In her third highly successful book for young people to be published in this country [The House on the Shore], Mrs. Dillon weaves a timeless tale of mystery in an Irish coastal village near the Aran Islands. Her young heroes, Jim and Roddy, with the courage and enterprise necessary for apprehending villains, overtake their elders in a danger-filled search to get the villagers' stolen money back from Jim's hated uncle…. [They commit] errors that make the boys the more convincing and their story more and more full of suspense. Every detail in description and speech counts, to give exactness and flavor to a book that both boys and girls will find absorbing. (pp. 262-63)


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Howard Boston

The familiar ingredients used [in "The Island of Horses"] might have made a trite yarn, but Eilis Dillon weaves a magic Irish spell and an A-1 mystery-adventure story, taut with action and suspense, results. Characters like Luke the Cat and Granny Conroy are distinctively drawn. The tale sparkles with the atmosphere of the sea and of small-town life along Ireland's west coast.

Howard Boston, "An Unlucky Place," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1957 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 17, 1957, p. 30.

There is nothing tentative about [The Bitter Glass]; it has a rounded excellence which comes...

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["The Bitter Glass"] is a gem of a first novel by an Irish writer who knows how to remove all barriers between her readers and her characters. From the moment Eilis Dillon shows us her little group of young people arriving in Galway—where they change trains for Keel—we are drawn into their lives. During the five troubling days which follow, we keep anxiously at their side, forgetting that all this is going on away back in 1922, during one of Ireland's civilwar crises….

What brings the reader close to this warm and subtly written story is not the catastrophes alone but the emotional tissue of the characters themselves….

Another unifying element, tying together the incidents...

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Howard Boston

As good as Eilis Dillon's earlier stories were, none of them can top "The Singing Cave" for narrative pace, atmosphere, or suspense. The villagers are all sharply and distinctively sketched. Ever present in the background are the restless sea, the shrilling winds and the wild splendor of the Irish coast.

Howard Boston, "Found and Lost," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1960 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 8, 1960, p. 8.

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Polly Goodwin

In other books for teen-agers Miss Dillon has shown she can spin a tale in the best romantic tradition of a [John] Buchan or a [Robert Louis] Stevenson. But never has she written one as stirring as [The Singing Cave], in which an exciting plot vies for interest with a dramatic Irish setting….

A chase thru turbulent seas, a cattle stampede on a high cliff's edge, the recovery of the treasure and its strange fate provide many a thrill. Pat, his grandfather, and their hardy, individualistic neighbors, are skillfully portrayed. And the sea girt, wind swept island exerts a fascination not soon forgotten.

Polly Goodwin, "The Junior Bookshelf: 'The Singing...

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Margery Fisher

What Allan McLean has done for Skye, Eilís Dillon is doing for remote Irish seaboards. Here are no crooks in the storybook sense, but people gone wrong. In The Island of Horses it is a local dealer who has turned thief to bolster up his self-importance. In The Singing Cave it is an egotistical recluse who covets the Viking found in the sand. In The House on the Shore it is an old man warped by his wife's death. With the free emotional swing of Irish tales, the motives of these very individual criminals are laid bare to us…. To find crime in everyday life, to find real motives for it, and to fuse detail into an imaginative whole—Eilís Dillon has done this, and has raised the standard of the...

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Anthony Boucher

Eilís Dillon's first detective story, "Death at Crane's Court" …, is long on charm and short on detection. She does an excellent job on a de luxe residential hotel near Galway and its aged and vexatious inhabitants, and it's all highly attractive and readable; but the plotting is hardly adequate for the formal tale of detection that it pretends to be.

Anthony Boucher, "Criminals at Large," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1963 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 15, 1963, p. 36.

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William Mayne

There is a good sweep of story [in The Coriander], all centred on the island [of Inishgillan]. There are characters who are full without being overstuffed with richness, a community that works out its hardships without having a boast made of them. There is a documentary quality to the whole book. Wherever we go on the island we are shown little snapshots to realise for us the feel of the place, explanations of why things are done in such a way, why somone said what he did, how some natural event had affected the landscape or the activities of men. I liked this fresh book very much.

William Mayne, "Water Salt and Water Cold," in New Statesman (© 1963 The Statesman...

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Robert Bell

The setting [of The Coriander] is a small island off the west coast of Ireland, so remote that no doctor will live and work there. When the Coriander is wrecked off the coast and two island boys find a doctor among the survivors but separated from the rest of the crew and with a broken leg, they hide him, much against his will…. There is plenty of action, excitement, mystery and intrigue, and pervading the whole story is the magic of Ireland, which the author invokes skilfully and hauntingly. Strongly recommended.

Robert Bell, "Eleven to Fifteen: 'The Coriander'," in The School Librarian and School Library Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, March, 1964, p. 207....

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Ruth Hill Viguers

The attitudes and viewpoints of the islanders [in The Coriander], often at variance with the law, and the subtle distinctions between right and wrong add fascinating complexities to the plot and show the author's remarkable understanding of the people. The unusual overtones, the convincing atmosphere, and the superb storytelling make this the most exciting of all Miss Dillon's books. (pp. 379-80)

Ruth Hill Viguers, "Summer Booklist: 'The Coriander'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1964, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XL, No. 4, August, 1964, pp. 379-80.

[A Family of Foxes] is an enchanting book, told...

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Laurence Adkins

Discriminating top juniors should enjoy [A Family of Foxes] as much as thirteen-year-olds, and teachers who care for children's literacy will take heart at this publication.

The superstitious islanders of Galway Bay hated and feared foxes so vehemently that the four boys needed considerable ingenuity, patience and sympathy to hide and succour the two silver foxes shipwrecked en route for the Dublin zoo. The vivid yet unusually gentle account of their stratagems, set against the atmosphere of island life—the wild sea wind, the clannishness, and the Irish folk-lore coupled with the harsh reality of living—mark this as another fine book by a first-rate writer.


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Elva Harmon

Although the animals' passive acceptance of their captivity and the success in hiding them in so watchful a community seem a bit unlikely [in A Family of Foxes], the boys, their efforts and their anxieties, are real and vivid. For younger readers than Dillon's The Coriander or The Island of Horses, it lacks their breathless pace but is a well developed, tender animal story and a memorable re-creation of an island world shaped by isolation, superstition, and ceaseless economic struggle. Highly recommended.

Elva Harmon, "Grades 3-6: 'A Family of Foxes'," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the May, 1965 issue...

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Margery Fisher

John Henebry, born in County Cork, at work at fourteen, inspired a revolutionary ballad when as a young stationmaster he showed the submissive villagers how to stand up to the local landowner…. Bold John's character is one of the pillars on which this interesting novel [Bold John Henebry] rests. Another is the sequence of the generations. Through John's family … the author shows that John, lavishing on them the material advantages he never had, made them soft and self-seeking instead of ambitious like himself. The constant changes in the family pattern are delineated with great skill. Because Eilis Dillon knows her characters so well we can see this really as a family, with all that this implies of...

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Robert Bell

The gradual maturing of the young rebel [in Bold John Henebry], the passing of the bitterness with the years, and the development of the revolutionary fervour into a compassionate nobility are traced in a most masterly way, and establish the author more firmly than ever in the virtuoso class. Highly recommended for fifth and sixth forms.

Robert Bell, "Literature: 'Bold John Henebry'," in The School Librarian and School Library Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, December, 1965, p. 329.

Eilís Dillon is perfectly at home with the old, simple life on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland. In The Sea Wall she describes the...

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Robert Bell

[Eilís Dillon's] particular and near-magical skill in evoking the atmosphere of Ireland and the attitudes and way of life of its people are nowhere more in evidence than in this superb story [The Sea Wall]. (p. 119)

Interest is caught from the first page and held firmly throughout. Description and character drawing are beautifully done, and the island will be a very real place to young readers. (p. 120)

Robert Bell, "Seven to Eleven: 'The Sea Wall'," in The School Librarian and School Library Review, Vol. 14, No. 1, March, 1966, pp. 119-20.

In the best adventure stories, the exploits and excitements seem to...

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Margery Fisher

Eilís Dillon, in The Cruise of the Santa Maria, shows once again that she is interested in character first and foremost as it is influenced by circumstances…. [The hooker Santa Maria] sets out for a proving voyage which John and his friend Jim Folan expect to last a day or two. But nobody is surprised when they don't return: the hooker has always been considered unlucky. Meanwhile the boys are not drowned, in spite of storms, but have made landfall on a tiny island where Colman Flaherty in old age broods over the defection of his youngest daughter Sarah, who married a Spanish fisherman against his wishes. The boys, drawn into the old man's troubles, resolve to sail to Spain and find Sarah—and so...

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Jean C. Thomson

Like the Irishmen she writes about, Eilís Dillon is a natural storyteller…. The lives of Irishmen and Spaniards are honestly and effectively described and characterized [in The Cruise of Santa Maria]. For all that, though, only the mature reader can be comfortable with a story of gossipy intent, in which the teenagers are for the most part, spectators of the affairs of adults.

Jean C. Thomson, "Junior High Up: 'The Cruise of the Santa Maria'," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the September, 1967 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1967), Vol. 14,...

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Ethel L. Heins

The story [The Cruise of the 'Santa Maria'] is not one of breath-taking suspense or excitement; it is rather a mature novel charged with the emotion generated by wonderfully strong and individualistic characters. As though the telling were as important as the events, the tale unfolds leisurely and beautifully with a deep interest in place and conversation and incidental circumstances.

Ethel L. Heins, "Early Fall Booklist: 'The Cruise of the Santa Maria'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1967, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XLIII, No. 5, October, 1967, p. 600.

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J. S. Jenkins

Irish authors have not far to look for stories of tension and conspiracy that realistically involve young people in matters of life and death. In "The Seals" Eilís Dillon draws on the immediacy that the Irish-English conflicts still have in Ireland to write a simple stirring story of rescue, courage, loyalty and noble cunning. To outwit the Black and Tans and to save a much sought-after fugitive, three boys and an old man brave a stormy crossing to the mainland…. Unequivocally partisan, the author rounds out a good narrative with the kind of incident, characterization and dialogue that evolves out of complete familiarity with her source—which makes the difference between her stories and those superficially...

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Colin Field

One of the chief virtues of [The Seals] is its restrained and controlled excitement. Eilis Dillon is a gifted and consistent writer who never descends to sensationalism but who holds the reader through the skilled pacing and the probability of her stories. Outstanding too … is the author's insight into the minds and hearts of adolescent boys. The book portrays the ambivalence of their relationships with adults—they need adults to prop up their idealism, but they are also critics of adult society when they see village gossip for what it is. Adolescent boys will enjoy the delectable bits of detail in the story—see for example the description of boys lighting a fire—and the more sensitive among them will...

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Catherine Storr

It is always a pleasure to read Eilis Dillon, who tells her stories in enchanting language…. [A Herd of Deer] is about a rich expatriate who stocks his Irish acres with an imported herd of deer. Some of the herd disappear and the neighbours stop being friendly. Peter Regan … helps to restore understanding between the landowner and his neighbours. This is a beautifully paced book which, without being outstanding, is memorable for the appreciation of every human relationship it touches on with surety and warmth.

Catherine Storr, "Dream Meanings," in New Statesman (© 1970 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 79, No. 2044, May 15, 1970, p....

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Mrs. D. Huddy

[A Herd of Deer] is Eilís Dillon at her best. The story … is full of excitement and tension. The writing is atmospheric and the description poetic in its feeling for the Irish countryside. But it is the sympathetic insight into the Irish character that marks the book as outstanding. Miss Dillon brilliantly conveys the men who are a mass of superstitions and contradictions; passionate in their hatreds and ready to do violence one minute, yet won over to friendship the next, for no better reason than that is how the feeling takes them. This is for teenagers or younger readers who can appreciate a mature talent in storytelling.

Mrs. D. Huddy, "Fiction: 'A Herd of Deer',"...

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Frank Eyre

Eilís Dillon is an experienced novelist, so it is not surprising that her wide range of characters should all be fully drawn—the adults as well as the children…. [She succeeds] in communicating a real sense of setting and atmosphere and [her] characters … are real people acting from believable motives. If the traditional adventure story has any future this is how it should be written. (p. 97)

Frank Eyre, "Fiction for Children," in his British Children's Books in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1971 by Frank Eyre; reprinted by permission of the publishers, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.; in Canada by Penguin Books Ltd.), Longman Books, 1971, Dutton, 1973, pp....

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Roger Garfitt

The English have a phrase 'past history', meaning something that's settled, or that we're prepared to forget. A whole world of security lies behind that little phrase. A nation with a different history couldn't have invented it. In the face of oppression, a consciousness forms in which there is only present history. Where identity is threatened, its continuity becomes crucial. This comes over very clearly in Eilis Dillon's Irish novel Across the Bitter Sea….

The early chapters of the novel have an authentic documentary power, but as the network of relationships spreads through the second and third generations, the whole structure begins irresistibly, and incongruously, to suggest a Fenian...

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D. W. Taylor

Arguably, children may find Roman history more palatable when peopled by assorted cardboard characters with 'suitable', if arbitrary, names such as Quintus, Octavian and Julia. My own feeling is that such attempts as [Living in Imperial Rome] fall rather painfully between two stools: neither history nor historical novel, they tend to lack precise, authentic detail, and imaginative colouring. This may be a personal prejudice: Eilis Dillon has written several children's books, and may have judged her audience better than I. But there are other irritants, too: a fair sprinkling of printing errors, and plausible generalisations masquerading as facts; Pliny the Younger, worthy man, elevated to almost supernatural...

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Lee R. Johnson

[Rome Under the Emperors, US title of Living in Imperial Rome,] is an enjoyable introduction to the study of Roman history…. Miss Dillon writes with a historian's regard for accuracy: I found almost no errors of historical fact and few of historical interpretation, other than the usual one which ascribes to Greeks of the second century AD the values of Athenians of the fifth century BC. Even this may be intentional, for the Greek slaves and paedagogues serve largely to comment on the defects of Roman society, which Miss Dillon's Romans could not do without stepping out of character—and she is careful not to allow them to do so. Many aspects of ancient civilization which we now regard as very...

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Mary Hope

Eilis Dillon's romantic saga of the earlier Irish Troubles [Blood Relations] is dignified by detail. Even for someone well acquainted with that sad history, the wealth of observation of domestic minutiae and social complexity is useful and entertaining, though the main sweep of the novel ranges from the utterly implausible romantic to the pedestrian historic…. The story shifts uneasily between [Molly Gould's] family … and the activities of the freedom fighters of the twenties. It lumbers heavily from family intrigue, through clandestine plotting, endless journeys across country, shoot-ups with Black and Tans.

As an addition to the Hi-Ludwig-how's-your-ninth-symphony-going? school of...

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Anne Carter

The Shadow of Vesuvius is a slight tale about a Greek boy, Timon, who has been captured and sold as a slave to the dotty but lovable painter, Scrofa. The two of them are working on the paintings for the house of the Vettii and a complicated plot involving a runaway marriage, an escaping gladiator and perfidious pirates reaches its conclusion as the volcanic ash begins to rain down.

Eilís Dillon tries hard to create a picture of the busy, heartless, commercially minded and materialistic city, but she is only intermittently successful. Her characters, too, lack conviction and their dialogue is frequently wooden. Yet there is something in the book, for all that: a sense, perhaps, of a...

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Daniel M. Murtaugh

The fictional plot [of Blood Relations] depends upon an ancient contrivance: a pregnancy arising from a virgin's one night of indiscretion. Molly Gould, the heroine, is "a beautiful young woman whose fiancé dies in an English jail, leaving her pregnant and trapped between Nicholas deLacy, whom she loves, and Peter Morrow, who has fathered her child, both of them committed to the passions and dangers of the Irish struggle for freedom." Her story never rises above the level established by that dustjacket blurb. Molly has a weak sister, and this makes us think of Scarlet O'Hara and Becky Sharp, who also had softer, weaker women as foils. But, unlike those glamorous survivors, Molly has no enlivening malice and...

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Winifred Whitehead

All writers select, rigorously, that portion of the world they wish to present, but in so doing some writers for children make a curious and partial offering—a child's world from which the rest of the community, adults in particular, have been almost wholly excluded. In such a world the children … conduct their affairs with a freedom from adult control of their actions and movement that is rarely accorded to children in real life. (p. 58)

The Irish writer Eilís Dillon has an outstandingly vivid sense of the child's place within the larger community. Her books are remarkable for their distinctive recreation of rural Ireland; the men living close to the land or sea, as farmworkers or...

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