Saturday, December 21, 2013

From the Archives #27: I Go by Sea, I Go by Land by P. L. Travers

By now, you have all probably heard of a new Disney film called Saving Mr. Banks about getting Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers to agree to letting Walt Disney make a movie of her most popular book.  But P. L. Travers wrote lots of other books besides her Mary Poppins novels and one of those books covered the three month period August to October 1940 during WWII.

I Go by Sea, I Go by Land was written in 1941 and is the story of the evacuation of two English children, Sabrina Lind, 11 and her brother James Lind, 8.  The first part of the novel, I Go by Sea, begins when Sabrina is given a diary to record her adventures once it is decided that she and James are to be evacuated by ship to America now that the Germans are actually dropping bombs on England.

After detailed accounts of getting passports, tickets, packing and goodbyes, the two children arrive in London for the train that will take them to the dock to board ship (not named but they are most likely leaving from Liverpool).  At the London train, along comes a family friend named Pel, who writes book, with her baby son Romulus.  Pel will be escorting the children to America.  Sabrina and James aren't the only evacuees on the ship - there are over 300 others being sent to Canada by the British government.

Sabrina is an observant child, giving more detailed accounts of sea sickness, other passengers, meeting and befriending one of the government evacuees, and of the convoys that are escorting them across the Atlantic.  It is a long but uneventful journey and when they arrive in Canada, the second part of the novel, I Go by Land, begins.

After some sightseeing in Canada, Pel, Sabrina, James and Romulus fly to La Guardia Airport in New York, where Sabrina and James are met by their mother's old friend, Aunt Harriet and her husband, Uncle George and their children Georgina, 13, and Washington, 17.  Pel and Romulus are staying in Manhattan, but Aunt Harriet lives in the suburbs.

The rest of the novel is Sabrina's description of the touristy things that they do for the first few weeks before school starts.  Their visit to the Statue of Liberty, and to the 1939 World's Fair just before it closed because of the war.  These visits are wonderfully detailed by Sabrina and totally worth reading, especially since she describes walking up to the Statue of Liberty's crown, something that visitors haven't been allowed to do in a long time.

The rest of the novel is about school, worrying about everyone back in England and ends on a rather upsetting note on James's 9th birthday when they are told by Pel that their beloved old home has been partially damaged by a bomb, though everyone is safe.

This is, indeed, an odd book.  There is not a real story, just descriptions of what happens for three months.  Yet, it is written with such historically realistic detail that it can draw you in completely.  In fact, it is so realistic, and given the friend's name was Pel, I did a little research and discovered that P. L. Travers did indeed travel to New York in August 1940, though only with her own son Camillus.  There were about 300 evacuees on board ship at the time, bound for Canada but Travers had nothing to do with them.  So, she only have to invent 11 year old Sabrina to turn her experience into an interesting children's story. And it is truly a window into a short but pivotal time in WWII for civilians.

And Travers did an excellent job of it, especially since, unlike Pel, she was not a happy, easy going person and Camillus was not the happy, quiet, content baby that Romulus is.

I Go by Sea, I Go by Land has lots of black and while pencil illustrations by Gertrude Hermes, an artist that Traversactually befriended on board ship in 1940 and remained friends for a while after arriving in America.

The title, I Go by Sea, I Go by Land is take from an old English bedtime prayer.

As much as this is an interesting book for young readers, you should be warned - the adults in the book smoke and have cocktails and a few more things are said that may not be PC by today's standards.

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was purchased for my personal library

This is book 14 of my 2013 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry


  1. I saw an advance screening of Saving Mr. Banks. So, I am suddenly curious about P.L. Travers. I hope I can get my hands on this.

    Fun that you have this in your collection!

    1. I had gotten it for something a long time ago, and forgot about it until I heard about the movie. It should be pretty easy to find, though. It isn't her most popular but it is interesting.

  2. P. L. Travers included among the passengers on the ship a boy whom the adult reader, at least, is intended to recognize as Jewish, although the narrator of the story, who is a child of 11, does not identify him as such. But he has a Jewish first name, he has a large nose, he is older than the others (meaning that he probably doesn't belong on the transport, since there was an age limit), he and his father publicly show emotion on parting, in a very non-English way, and worst of all, he insists on playing games for money with the two young children and then keeping the money he has won for them. That's a lot of anti-Semitic prejudices in one package. This book was published in 1941, and in view of what was happening to the Jews of Europe just then, it seems like an odd time to have been voicing one's anti-Semitic prejudices, much less peddling them to children through the medium of a children's book. When Emma Thompson says of P. L. Travers that she was a horrible person, who according to her own grandchildren died loving no one and loved by no one, I have no trouble believing it.