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Enid BLYTON: The Boy Next Door (1944)

Review by Michael Edwards

      The Boy Next Door is perhaps one of Enid Blyton's less-known books, and one of several non-series adventure stories that she wrote. Brother and sister Robin and Betty live in lonely Faldham: Robin arrives home from boarding school for the summer holidays, and their cousin Lucy also arrives with her fox-terrier, Sandy. The three children are interested to see people moving into the house next door, the only other house for miles around, and hope there will be children there to play with. They soon notice a boy there, but are puzzled at how quiet he is, and at the fact that he seems to be in hiding. They sneak into his garden and meet him, and on subsequent visits learn that he is indeed in hiding: his name is Kit Anthony Armstrong, he is from America, and he's very rich after the disappearance and probable death of his father, and his uncle is seeking to kidnap him to hold for ransom, and is scouting about looking for him.
      He is in the charge of two people in the house next door: a woman called Miss Taylor, whom he nicknames the Dragon because her manner can be rather fierce at times, and also a stern, surly tutor called Mr. Barton. The first time the children enter the property and meet Kit, they are found by the Dragon while he has gone inside briefly, and the Dragon denies that there is any boy living there at all (not being aware that they had met him just minutes before).
      Next time they try to crawl through the hedge dividing the two properties, they find that a chain-link fence has been erected all the way around the property, presumably to keep them out. However, it is always possible to dig a hole underneath the fence and continue visiting Kit secretly. He is lonely and bored because he is not allowed ever to leave the property, and is glad to know the children next door and enjoys their secret visits. However, such visits are perilous, and the children have a few narrow escapes from being discovered on the property by Mr. Barton and the Dragon, who have made it very clear they will stand for no nonsense.
      Meanwhile, there seems to be a strange American man in the district making enquiries about Kit, and he appears to have a slight family resemblance in appearance to Kit, and it looks possible the enemy is gradually closing in, which creates some tension. The children have discovered an old neglected houseboat in a lonely overgrown backwater down the river, and tidy it up for a play area - if things get too desperate, perhaps they can hide Kit there from his enemies, because surely no-one would think of looking for him there. Although the boat's owner, Mr. Cunningham, who owns the house nearby, has given them permission to play on the boat, they are dismayed a little later to be approached by strangers who turn them out, claiming they have rented Mr. Cunningham's house while he is away, and that they therefore have the right to the exclusive use of the boat. Oddly enough, one of these men also seems to have a family resemblance to Kit.
      Things boil up as the enemy closes in, and Robin finds out that Mr. Barton is in the pay of Kit's uncle, and plans to hand him over to him in return for 5,000; indeed, Kit's uncle is due to visit the house the following evening to take Kit away to some hiding place. During a clandestine visit the afternoon before the uncle is due to call in, Robin manages to warn Kit of this, and the children try to work out a plan of action to save Kit: it looks like the only way is to get Kit off the property and hide him themselves. Robin, during the afternoon visit, urges Kit to come with him under the fence straight away, but he can't, because Mr. Barton is already calling him, and getting very angry - Robin must instantly hide from view, and it would not do to let Mr. Barton see the hole which represents a possible way of escape from the back garden. Before crawling back under the fence, Robin tells Kit to give his guardians the slip at the earliest opportunity, and to crawl under the fence - but Kit can't because Mr. Barton accompanies him everywhere and won't let him out of sight for even a moment. And when evening comes he is going to be locked in his upstairs bedroom, from which there is no escape. The net seems to be closing in, and it is looking increasingly unlikely that Kit can escape in time. As things get more desperate, it becomes increasingly important to know whether the Dragon can be trusted to help him or not - but her role in all this remains quite uncertain.
      The story is well-written and exciting. I tend to find some of Blyton's non-series adventure books rather less engrossing than some of her series books, but this is definitely one of the more exciting ones. The section where Kit's enemies are closing in and he is desperately trying to escape is handled well by Blyton, who winds up the tension quite expertly; you keep reading on to find out what happens, and there are plenty of twists as Kit is locked up, manages to give Mr. Barton the slip when he comes to his room to hand him over to his uncle, and has to resort to various ruses to mislead his captors long enough to evade them and escape by a circuitous route from the house and garden: up the stairs, into the attic, out the window, across a plank of wood, into a tree, onto the garage roof, into the garden, under the fence, and so on - with the two men in hot pursuit all the way. It is quite breathless.
      After various night adventures, Kit manages to hide in the houseboat for the time being with the other children's help, but the enemy are still after him and it looks as if he will not be safe in the houseboat after all. Indeed, as the excitement, the move and countermove, continues to build up, the houseboat plays an unexpected and paradoxical role in the unfolding of the plot, and the enemies turn up again most unexpectedly, and are far too close for comfort.
      In excitement, this story is the equal of some of the Famous Five stories, which I find one of Enid Blyton's most exciting series. (In terms of sheer intricacy of plot, the Adventure stories featuring Jack, Lucy-Ann, Philip, Dinah, and Kiki the parrot, probably come ahead of all others of Blyton's novels. The Famous Five are not too far behind, though.)

      If the story has a shortcoming, it is probably one which it shares with some of the other singleton adventure novels, and one which is perhaps an inevitable consequence of being a lone work not in any series. That shortcoming is that one doesn't have quite such a clear perception of the individuality of the characters - you don't feel you get to know them very well as people.
      None of Blyton's adventure stories have deep characterization, not even as deep as the family and school stories have. This is not necessarily a fault (although it is often cited as one), and deep characterization might not be appropriate for fast-moving adventure or mystery stories. Indeed some commentators have pointed to Blyton's relative lack of detailed characterization in most of her books as an ingredient of her phenomenal success: by refraining from specifying too much detail about the characters, Blyton allows the characters to become templates in a sense, into which child readers with their rich imaginations can project whatever they want to put in there - perhaps elements of themselves. Far from being a shortcoming as it is often portrayed by those unsympathetic to Blyton's work, it may be a deliberate tactic on her part, and one which has worked very well.
      However, in spite of this, in a series of books such as the Famous Five or Adventure or Barney series, one does get a general feel for the characters: their personality, appearance, habits, interests, and so on. In The Boy Next Door and most of the other singletons, one does not get this feeling, and to be honest I don't even remember the names of the characters in most of them - and didn't remember the names of the children in this story (other than Kit) before rereading the novel recently. The template theory may have some application here, but one doesn't want it to be taken too far - for characters to become completely empty, one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs does not help a story.
      I don't perceive some of the series characters such as the Famous Five in this way - perhaps an author has more space to spread out and develop aspects of character over several novels - but in some of the singletons, I feel the central characters come a little too close for comfort to being cardboard cut-outs. Kit's American identity and American habits of speech (not very strong, but detectable) save him from this and give him a degree of individuality - but in the long run you don't really end up knowing much about him, or having any more than the most superficial impression of his personality. Nonetheless, he is quite an attractive character, and comes across as quite likeable. The other children are similarly likeable in a vague way, but you have even less sense of their personality, which is perhaps the main shortcoming of this novel, which is otherwise quite exciting and engrossing.
      Interestingly, most of Blyton's non-series adventure stories, including this one, have been adapted in recent years so that they are all drawn into a series with the same characters. However, since I have not read these versions, I cannot comment on how much the stories have been changed, and whether it detracts from the original versions or not. But it may have been done as an attempt to solve this characterization problem most of the singletons seem to have: perhaps, by adapting the stories into a series with common characters, it might allow readers to get a sense of the individuality of the characters, at least to a similar extent that one already can in other Blyton series.
      I suppose this idea might have some merit, but I have misgivings about novel revisions of this sort done by other writers. While it would be interesting to read this new "series", and it's possible I might be quite taken by how well it's been done, until that happens, I would tend to prefer the original versions written by Blyton herself, even with their shortcomings. However, this exemplifies the emergence in recent years of a growing "industry" in adding new stories to Blyton's various series and making new versions of the original stories.

      A short post-script: There is a slight inconsistency in the story, but it doesn't significantly affect the story itself: Once or twice characters appear who it is noticed bear a slight family resemblance to Kit in appearance, as above noted, and this leads to the suspicion that one or other of these people might be the wicked uncle. Yet at the end of the book it is revealed that the uncle was in fact a stepbrother of Kit's father. But in that case he would no more likely bear a resemblance to Kit in appearance than would any random stranger seen on the street.
      My feeling is that Blyton may have started out thinking of him as an uncle, related in the ordinary way; and indeed she consistently referred to him merely as an uncle. Yet in the end a curious taboo appears to have come into play, and apparently forced Blyton to make him a step-relative. This taboo, which can be seen in one or two other Blyton works, and indeed in children's books by other authors, and in fairy tales too, is that a blood relative should not be wicked. If a female guardian is wicked, or ill-treats the child in her charge, she is always a stepmother, never a natural mother. The wicked sisters in Cinderella are stepsisters, not natural sisters. It is stepfathers who are cruel or run away from their families - never biological fathers, who always remain loving and responsible.
      However, Blyton did break the taboo in other stories: in The Secret Island, the harsh, cruel aunt and uncle the children run away from are, as far as we can tell, a genuine aunt and uncle; and in Hollow Tree House, the two children who befriend Angela are oppressed by Aunt Margaret, who is not merely bad-tempered, but downright cruel; and their uncle Charlie, although quite likeable and good-natured, is portrayed as lazy and shiftless, and not at all reliable.

      I have further comments about this novel, especially concerning elements of its plot - but, because it does give away the crux of the plot, I have put this on a different page of spoiler information. Please don't go there unless you have already read the book, or don't mind having it completely spoilt. There is no further warning or prompt: clicking on the link takes you straight there.

Michael Edwards,
Victoria, Australia.

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Original text copyright (C) 2000, by Michael Edwards.

More material on this web site related to Blyton

      Book listing for Enid Blyton

      More reviews by myself of Enid Blyton's books

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      Search at AddALL.com for a used copy of The Boy Next Door.

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This page created on Tuesday, 28 November, 2000;
last modified on Tuesday, 28 November, 2000.