The dry magnificence of The Otterbury Incident

These days, I’m convalescing at my folks’ ranch. I spend the vast majority of my time in bed, which means I’m reading a lot. And I mean a lot. I’ve taken to raiding the library for old books from my childhood. Yesterday, I rediscovered The Otterbury Incident.

Written by C. Day Lewis in 1948, the Incident is the story of a group of schoolchildren in a small town in post-war England. In a nutshell, the plot is about how they tangle with a gang of crooks and deal with them without going to the police or any adults for help.

It’s a marvelous book, written with dry wit and an elegant understated style. C. Day Lewis was a professor of poetry at Oxford and also was made the poet laureate of England in 1968. Suffice it to say, he knew how to use words.

I was somewhat apprehensive when I started reading yesterday. Some books, dimly remembered from childhood, do not stand the passage of time. Sometimes that’s due to how stupid we become as adults. Sometimes that’s due to how poorly the book was written. The Otterbury Incident, however, admirably stands up to the passage of time without even breaking a sweat. It’s a pearl of a book and well worth owning in physical form. If you have a precocious child, they will greatly enjoy it (unless they’re a goggle-eyed little TV addict) and I daresay that adults who enjoy more traditional British humor will enjoy it as well (for them, I would say the Incident feels like a younger, more cheerful cousin of Kingley Amis’ Lucky Jim).

3 thoughts on “The dry magnificence of The Otterbury Incident”

  1. I think I have a copy of that very edition sitting on the shelf downstairs! Including the old library sticker on the spine.
    Have you ever read any Erich Kästner? From what I remember of “Otterbury”, Kästner reads similar, especially “The Flying Classroom”. And his work is, of course, of the same vintage. Might be a bit hard to find English copies, but if you’ve never read them, I think you’d enjoy them. “Emil and the Detectives” is *the* classic, and “Lottie and Lisa” is wonderful (“Das doppelte Lottchen” – it was made into “The Parent Trap” movie, but of course the book is much better). Every German kid from the 30’s onward grew up on them.

    1. Are you serious? Don’t lose that book!

      Yeah, I like Kastner a lot. Emil and the Detectives was a favorite of mine when I was young. I’m not sure if we have a copy here. If we do, it’s probably in German. I’ve never heard of The Flying Classroom. I’ll have to hunt that one down, plus Emil–time to read that again.

      1. I actually like The Flying Classroom best of his books. It’s a Christmas story, and he talks about how he wrote it in the summer and had to go somewhere where he could see the snowy tops of the Alps in order to get into the mood for writing. And how a calf named Eduard came to keep him company while he was writing.

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