A Summer in the Twenties

Written by Peter Dickinson
Review by Helene Williams

First published in the UK in 1981 and now released in the United States this year, Dickinson’s chronicle of post-Great War life and love in the northeast of England is at times a Wodehouse-like commentary on the class system and, at others, a serious look at the economics of the era.

Tom Hankey is the thoughtful protagonist; a good student at Oxford, he is set to inherit the family home, with one brother dead in the war and the other on a permanent bender. He falls in love with Judy Tarrant, the seemingly shallow only child of a moneyed family. Tom’s father interrupts the romantic nonsense with a request that Tom work behind the scenes during the general strike in England in the summer of 1926. Specifically, he wants Tom to drive a train, to bring goods and passengers to Hull. Thus begins Tom’s real education in politics and economics—from communism to workers’ rights movements to string-pulling by those with money and power. He is drawn into his friend Bertie’s plot to identify the Boshevik leaders among the workers in Hull, and as he meets those involved, including firebrand Kate Barnes, he begins to question generations of assumptions about money and worth.

Dickinson shows us the daily lives of both the upper crust, with their carpeted manor houses and petty intrigues, as well as the working poor, who live in noisy, crowded conditions. Intergenerational strife abounds, as children of all classes disappoint their elders by not becoming what they were brought up to be; the exchanges are witty yet full of meaning, illuminating the shift of power away from the old class system toward something new and unproven. Dickinson conveys a lot of excellent historical material in a thoroughly engaging narrative with enough suspense to keep readers entertained on multiple levels.