There have been times in the history of education when schools were classified as "progressive." Those schools - usually private institutions - encouraged freedom of thought with students being allowed time to experiment with talents and life in various manners. This was particularly true in some British schools where master teachers and craftsmen tutored the youngsters in small groups under open scheduling and what many would consider permissive standards.
Dartington Hall, which Daniel and Esther attend, is such a school. Daniel, a defiant and troublesome 13-year-old, cannot find a place to use his energy that the headmaster calls creative, but which has gotten him expelled from numerous other schools. It is only after he tries to disassemble an old car, tossing the parts out a window intending to reassemble them again, that the school urges him to more constructive and feasible projects.When he is introduced to a general, a musical genius, he discovers his talent in music, "There can be no misunderstanding, no pretense, only an exquisite order . . . "
"Daniel and Esther" is an important book because it gives a strong setting of the impending outbreak of World War II and what that did to those living in imperiled England. It combines the biases and conflicts in one of the most tender relationships of a young man and woman that I have read in a long time.
But the book will lack solution for many American young adult readers. First, the leniency of Dartington Hall with its lack of rules, nude bathing and undefined curriculum will leave questions that are unanswered even by the entry note of the author: "Dartington was a real school. In the 1930s, when this story takes place, it was one of the first to believe in freedom for young people, which seemed revolutionary at the time."
What remains a question is the reason why there was this kind of school, which served such a diverse student body as young people from America and Europe. What makes this philosophy important to the time and the setting prior to World War II?
Another question, of course, is why Daniel develops such an extraordinary talent (writing a musical suite to be performed by a concert) while lovely-to-look-at Esther merely wanders in and out of his life but never really does anything except accompany her parents to Austria and then return without them as they (not Esther!) become defenders of the homeland. Even in the 1930s, girls did more than balance the population of the student enrollment.
"Daniel and Esther" has been defined as an understatement, and I heartily agree. However, I do recommend the book because of its treatment of a chaotic time of history and the "finding of self" theme that is the backbone of the book.
My personal bias, of course, is that the "open-education" movement of the British schools has never been fairly dealt with in literature for young people. Who better to do that than Patrick Raymond, who was educated in Dartington Hall, served in the Royal Air Force during World War II and has written about these experiences in books for adults?
What young readers will get from "Daniel and Esther" could be varied, but it is a story from a dedicated author who hopefully will continue to lend his writing talents to works that will interest young adult readers.
- Marilou Sorensen is an associate professor of education at the University of Utah specializing in children's literature.