Robert Westall Essay - Critical Essays

Westall, Robert


Robert Westall 1929–

British young adult novelist and art and architecture critic.

In the space of five years, Westall has established himself as a distinctive voice in contemporary young adult literature. Each of his four novels has been praised for its originality, successful presentation of theme and prose style.

Westall's body of work is notable for its variety: his first novel, The Machine-Gunners, is a realistic, unsentimental account of life during the Second World War, while his other books are time-travel adventures which contain elements of history, mystery, and the supernatural. The Machine-Gunners, which won the 1976 Carnegie Medal, has been compared to William Golding's Lord of the Flies for its accurate depiction of adolescents operating without adult supervision.

The Machine-Gunners introduces several features now standard in Westall's novels: authentically described settings of Tyneside England; fascination with the capacity for violence, both physical and psychological, which exists in every person; shrewd observations of human behavior; a sardonic sense of humor; and above all the excitement and fluidity that mark a good story. Westall's novels raise questions about guilt, cruelty, chance, courage, the validity of war, the importance of myth, and the appreciation of the past. He has been criticized for creating plots that are often too complex and sometimes incomplete, and for his excessive use of swearing, violence, and sexual references.

Westall is often commended for his accurate depiction of the adolescent character, due perhaps to his years as a high school art teacher and guidance counselor. "There is an innocence and vitality in adolescents that endlessly recharges me," he has said. "I want to show them that life is basically a holy comedy—though sometimes a black one." By presenting his adolescent readers with mature themes, situations, and language, Westall shows respect for both their sophistication and their depth, while he continues to expand the boundaries of the young adult novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)

Margery Fisher

I can think of few writers who have put on paper as successfully as Robert Westall has done in The Machine-Gunners the sheer muddle of [the Second World War] and the day-to-day difficulty, for civilians at least, of deciding what was important. This book has a remarkable authenticity of atmosphere. It would be wrong to recommend it as anything but a story but if young people want to know what the war was really like, this book should go some way towards telling them. (p. 2707)

Robert Westall tells his story in a no-nonsense fashion, setting the scene with a light, pointed use of local idiom, cutting in moments at an early warning post, in an air raid shelter, at school, in the McGill's kitchen or Nicky's lonely bedroom, always with due attention to personality. The action of the story is dependent, ultimately, on character. Because Chris is what he is, or McGill his strict, responsible father, or Rudi with his gambling streak or the shrewd schoolmaster Liddell, certain events happen that cause more events, until the final moment when muddle and mistake come to their dangerous yet almost farcical climax. For the timing and tempering of the narrative, the free flow and the relevance of the dialogue, for the controlled humour and perception in the drawing of character, this is a notable first book. (p. 2708)

Margery Fisher, "Special Review: 'The Machine-Gunners'," in her Growing Point, Vol. 14, No. 4, October, 1975, pp. 2707-08.

Robert Bell

The cunning, initiative and courage which [the boys in The Machine Gunners] show in carrying out their plan under the noses of the adults, as well as those of a suspicious rival gang, are totally convincing and most admirably recounted by [Robert Westall], whose insight into the boy mind places him in the William Golding league. (pp. 55-6)

No better junior novel than this has appeared for a long time…. Indeed, adult readers would learn a great deal from it. (p. 56)

Robert Bell, "Fiction: 'The Machine Gunners'," in The School Librarian, Vol. 24, No. 1, March, 1976, pp. 55-6.

Aidan Chambers

[The Machine Gunners is] astonishingly good. (p. 438)

[Gripping] though the events are, it is not so much what but the way and why it happens that is important in this book. (p. 439)

[Westall's book] has two qualities that make it exceptional when placed against … other children's books about the war. First of all, his memory of the time, his recall of it and re-creation of it in his story, has a much sharper edge than anyone else's. No self-pity; no over-indulgence in nostalgia. Comedy, yes, but the sardonic, laugh-or-cry humor of wartime. And no sparing of the terrible sights, no forgetting or ignoring of the horror. He gets nearer to the living truth than others have done, and his brisk, strong, precise prose is full of little details—images that fill in the background to his story's events. There's the life of a whole community woven into the plot. (p. 440)

Just at [a] primary level—the recall of the way life was and the plotting which contains the reality and conveys its texture and sensation—Westall's writing is totally assured and confident. Remarkable in any book, all the more so in a first novel.

But the second quality I want to pinpoint changes The Machine-Gunners from an accomplished historical novel into a novel about today. Remember that focusing symbol of the gun. Remember too that the book is about a boy who begins by collecting shrapnel for...

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Margery Fisher

Robert Westall believes that he owes it to his readers (who will probably be twelve or over in the main) to be frank about adult frailty, allowing that children have more charity and fewer illusions than the average junior domestic novel recognises. His book is trenchant and candid and has something of the spontaneous, sardonic humour that is one of the more agreeable traits of the intelligent 'teens. The Wind Eye is not a swipe at orthodoxy nor at the older generation but an adept and adventurous attempt at a very individual kind of realism. (p. 3018)

Margery Fisher, "Magic Domesticated," in her Growing Point, Vol. 15, No. 6, December, 1976, pp. 3016-19.

Lance Salway

Robert Westall [in The Wind Eye] is primarily concerned with his characters, with the conflict between them, and with the way in which their attitudes and behaviour are changed, for better or worse, as a result of their experiences. By the end of the book, each member of the family has come to terms with themselves and with their relationship with each other; the benign influence of St Cuthbert has crossed the centuries and touched them all. The Wind Eye is a many-layered book, and it succeeds admirably on each level. Whether the book is viewed as exciting time fantasy or as a perceptive study of family behaviour, the reader is kept in thrall until the final page. And, above all, it reinforces Robert...

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Betty Baum

The horrid, sordid aspects of the war are depicted [in The Machine Gunners] without sentimentality or sensationalism. Both children and adults are believable and the plot holds our interest. Unfortunately, the book loses some of its power and appeal because neither the adults nor the children stir our sympathy and affections. Only the German prisoner awakens any love or loyalty. A good book that might have been great.

Betty Baum, "'The Machine Gunners'," in Children's Book Review Service (copyright © 1977 Children's Book Review Service Inc.), Vol. 5, No. 5, January, 1977, p. 50.

[The Wind Eye] is a book of...

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Ralph Lavender

The Watch House, set in the Robert Westall country of The Machine-Gunners, concerns Anne, who has been dumped like a lost parcel on Prudie, her mother's old nanny…. She becomes interested in the Watch House …, where there is a museum. The past begins to catch up with the present when Anne goes to dust the display cases there, and through her two unsettled ghosts begin to work towards their final emnity against each other….

It is a fast-moving, action-packed story written in a racy style; the dialogue is sharply observed and makes the necessary genuflections towards a little bit of sex, a little bit of violence and a bit more of the occult (there are several hypnotic trances)…....

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Robert Bell

The setting [for The Watch House] is again the north-east coast, again the 'feel' of this part of the country is marvellously well conveyed, and the native character, dialect and turn of phrase are absolutely genuine….

Anne becomes involved in supernatural activities which will chill young spines in no uncertain manner…. Well up to Robert Westall standards, this one. Boys and girls alike will revel in it, and it is a 'must', particularly for Machine-gunners addicts.

Robert Bell, "'The Watch House'," in The School Librarian, Vol. 26, No. 3, September, 1978, p. 264.

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Robert Westall

Ever since I wrote The Machine-gunners (and in spite of the fact that my last three books have been fantasies) people keep consulting me about realism in children's books. Rather as if I'd been appointed high priest and was being asked to read the entrails. There is not much career-structure for high priests who fail to read entrails, so I'd better come clean with what I think. (p. 34)

Perhaps all the best books start by being written for only one child, and that child very close to you. They start when the child-within-the-author turns to the real child and says, "Come away with me and I will show you a place you otherwise will never see, because it is buried under thirty, or three hundred or...

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Margery Fisher

At a first reading I felt that the historical sources for The Devil on the Road were too obtrusive in the narrative, but a second reading made the careful structure of the book and the skilful correlations of past with present a good deal more apparent. The infamous Witch-Finder General of the 1640's, Matthew Hopkins, and the sadistic false witness and greed he showed towards helpless victims in Suffolk, provide the basis for the story of a first-year student at London University who … is caught up—as victim, saviour or reincarnation?—in the fortunes of Johanna Vavasour and her efforts to help certain condemned cottagers on her family estate. Since it would appear that young John Webster did in the end...

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Margaret Meek

The only way to read Robert Westall is to give yourself up to the spell of his storytelling. When his tales are about various kinds of magic, good and bad, that lurk in the everyday world of modern mechanical objects, there is a chance that they have roots deep in the past…. There is no adequate means of summarising the to-and-fro of then-and-now to make the allegory [of The devil on the road] clear, but readers of The watch house and The wind eye will recognise the Bunyanesque quality of this tale—all modern speech and long-ranging concern for the consequences of intolerance. A challenging read and a novel in the top class. (pp. 165, 168)

Margaret Meek,...

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Natalie Babbitt

There are always problems with time travels which involve real histories, and The Devil on the Road does not escape them, though Westall handles the transitions with great subtlety and skill. But the writing is so charged and vigorous, the timing of the plot so carefully measured, that the customary difficulties are minimized.

John Webster seems very real indeed, and likable; and even better, there is a young cat, deeply involved in the story and central to it, who is surely one of the best and most charmingly drawn cats I've ever encountered in a book. Her presence in the story does for it what real cats can do for real life—she is all animal but still profoundly enigmatic, a creature of...

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R. Greggs

Set in both today's England and Civil War England, [The Devil on the Road] describes the experiences of John Webster in each time period. The author attempts to develop the main character and to set the basis for the novel before he allows Webster to traipse back and forth in time. The results are useless….

What sustains the story is a fictionalized account of a witch hunt in Cromwell's England. Transported back to that era, Webster finds himself forced to decide whether to accept passively the obvious wrong of witch hunting like most inhabitants of that period or to resist. Factors like his ability to transcend time and knowledge of past events help him make his decision. In such instances,...

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