Author Susan Cooper and WW2

Susan Cooper is an acclaimed author of children’s books and is best known for her fantasy series, The Dark Is Rising. She was born in 1935 and grew up on Westlands Avenue in Huntercombe (the area around Huntercombe Manor straddling Cippenham, Dorney and Taplow). World War 2 started when she was age four and her wartime memories had a considerable influence on her writing, much of which is rich in references to local places.

Dawn of Fear and Muffin

Susan attended Cippenham Primary School where her mother was a teacher. On 28 October 1940, a bomb wiped out a bungalow which stood next to the school in Dennis Way and Susan was to draw influence from her memories of this event. Her 1970 novel, Dawn of Fear covers nine days in the life of eleven year-old Derek and his friends, during which they learn the grim realities of war. One morning Derek finds a crowd gathered outside the school and making his way through sees a large crater in the road. He turns to see a second crater where a house had stood next door to the school. His friend then tells him that the old lady who lived in the house was killed. Susan Cooper used the event again in a short story of 1985 called Muffin, in which a girl named Daisy struggles with being bullied at Cippenham primary school. Daisy is befriended by an old lady whose garden adjoins the field of the school. Muffin is the name of the old lady’s dog. The old lady subsequently dies when her house is bombed. Fortunately, Muffin survived and was successfully able to defend Daisy from the bully.

Dawn of fear – Stukas feature on the cover but fortunately Cippenham would have been beyond their range.

We wondered what other elements in these stories, besides the actual bombing, might be factual. In particular, we were interested to know if the old lady had really existed. It seemed likely as she features in both stories, but our researches on the casualties indicated otherwise.  We wrote to Susan Cooper and she kindly sent detailed replies to our queries about the stories. She confirmed that she had based events on the actual bombing. The old lady was in fact invented, as was Muffin the dog. The school bully, however, was indeed real!

Susan Cooper has said that besides the invention of the old lady and that Derek is obviously male, Dawn of Fear is autobiographical, in that every event actually happened, even if some details are slightly changed. The central theme is how a child’s understanding of war goes from something that seems exciting and heroic to something to be afraid of. This relates to Susan’s own experiences. The north end of Westlands Avenue was separated by a field from the main railway line which was a constant target for the German Bombers. There was an anti-aircraft post in the field. Susan and her family went to their Anderson shelter during air raids, and their nights were frequently punctuated by the firing of the anti-aircraft gun and the whistles and crumps of bombs, sometimes falling close enough to cause the candle flame to flicker. Fortunately, their house was was never hit, the nearest bomb falling about six houses away. In a similar way to Dawn of Fear, the experience of living under the threat from a great force of evil was an inspiration for the series of books that Susan Cooper is best known for.

The Dark is Rising

The Dark is Rising is a series of six fantasy novels written for older children. The series is named after its second book, the first being a precursor to the introduction of the central character of the rest of the series, Will Stanton. On the occasion of his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton starts to awaken to his true being as an elder, who exists outside of the normal passage of time and possesses the power of magic. The process of awakening is gradual, but other elders reveal themselves and assist him. He learns from them that, as a force for light, he must fight the opposing forces of darkness which have been amassing in strength to take over the world. Over the series, Will Stanton has to carry out a number of quests in his struggle to defeat the dark.

The Dark is Rising book combines elements from Celtic mythology, Arthurian legend and local folklore such as Herne the Hunter. Although the action plays out in different historical eras, it is mostly based in the mid-20th century local area and there are many familiar place names. Will’s family live on Huntercombe Lane in a house which was based on the Old Vicarage, Dorney. Other settings were based on Huntercombe Manor, Lake End farm and St James Church. Oldway Lane has particular significance in the story and some crucial events occur there. In reality, this lane once connected the Royal palace in Cippenham to Burnham Abbey. Since the publication of the books, there have been a number of Bronze Age archaeological discoveries made along its route, indicating that it is truly an ancient way, just as it is portrayed in the stories. The books in the Dark is Rising sequence have received much critical acclaim and a number of awards including the Newbery Medal which is the highest US accolade for children’s literature. It has undoubtedly influenced the work of later writers, and in particular, there are some marked similarities with Harry Potter, who, like Will Stanton, discovers his magical identity on his eleventh birthday and undergoes training to fight against the dark forces that have amassed to take over the world. It is unfortunate that the film adaptation of The Dark is Rising made in 2007 failed to live up to the book and wasn’t a box office success.

Life in America

After attending Slough High School, Susan Cooper studied English at Somerville College, University of Oxford. Today she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, having settled in the USA in 1963 where her first husband was a professor at MIT. In addition to children’s stories, she has written science fiction, dramas, screenplays, and a Broadway play.

It is a wonderful thing that although many of Susan Cooper’s books have been written while living so far away, the place of her upbringing has influenced her writing. There is little doubt that she shares with many of us, the feeling that there is something ancient, special and magical about this particular area of the middle Thames Valley.

We gratefully acknowledge Susan Cooper’s assistance with this article.

Related links

The 1940 bombings of Cippenham

Susan Cooper’s website: The Lost Land of Susan Cooper

One Response to Author Susan Cooper and WW2

  1. […] mentioned, the real Huntercombe is part of Cippenham, a suburb of Slough, which in the Middle Ages was owned by the Norman French family Fitzother; they […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.