Darwin’s Dragons by Lindsay Galvin

Darwin's Dragons (Paperback)
Cover illustration by Gordy Wright

As the individual responsible for English in my school, I am often asked by other staff members to suggest suitable books – either to use as class readers to share solely for pleasure, or to link the teaching of English with another curriculum topic. In the case of science, where some of the areas covered can be quite abstract, this is sometimes quite tricky so when I saw this new read cropping up over and over again in my Twitter feed as a story linking into Evolution and Inheritance, which is taught in Year 6, I ordered a copy and bumped it straight to the top of my TBR pile when it arrived.

While there is no doubt that it does link in very nicely with that area of the curriculum, it strikes me as a great shame that it might be used in schools solely for that reason, because having now read this, I can confirm that it is worth reading simply as a great story: one which will appeal enormously to those looking for a cracking adventure, packed full as it is with excitement and danger while carrying a strong conservation message for its intended audience.

Many adults – and some children – will be familiar with the stereotypical image of Charles Darwin as an older gentleman, looking very serious as perhaps befits an individual of his almost-legendary status. Here, however, we meet him as a much younger man, partway through his world-famous expedition on board the ship The Beagle. More specifically, he is on Albemarle Island – part of the Galapagos Islands archipelago, accompanied by cabin boy and fiddler Syms Covington. Together, they are examining a giant tortoise at close quarters when they notice a storm rapidly approaching. Hurriedly, they return to the rowing boat manned by two seamen who are going to return them to the ship.

With his precious violin, Scratch, safely stashed in its case on his back, and the storm now upon them, Syms bails water from the small boat as it tries to reach its destination. Unfortunately, Darwin falls overboard and Syms finds himself jumping in to the sea to try to rescue him. This plan backfires terribly when Syms is pulled under the water only to find when he resurfaces that there is no sign of either ship or crew. Eventually, after spending some time in the sea he finds that there are rocks beneath his feet and he hauls himself out of the water and onto a wild and godforsaken island with no idea as to where he is.

As he tries to clear his thoughts sufficiently to plan what to do next, the shadow of a large flying creature passes over him. Before he can try to identify what it is, he finds himself being picked up by the creature which carries him out over the sea and drops him into the water. This process is repeated until Syms manages to camouflage himself using some seaweed and the beast flies away, enabling him to then start to investigate his surroundings.

Looking about, Syms spies an active volcano in the distance and recollects how much Darwin wanted to see one erupt, before his attention is drawn to something nudging his leg. Looking down, he spies a large lizard – one which he soon takes to and christens Farthing when it starts to show signs of wanting to help him survive on the island. But Syms does not want to stay on the island – he wants to rejoin the crew of The Beagle. With the mysterious flying creature, the volcano and even the island itself making his stay an increasingly dangerous one, will Syms find a way to leave and – more importantly – how will he ever find his way back to ship and crew again?

I suspect many readers will buy this without reading the blurb – like I did – expecting it to be a story focussed on the adventures of Charles Darwin and although he does appear in the book, it is as a secondary character with Syms having all of the adventures contained within its pages. By presenting the story in this way, Darwin’s undoubtable genius is reframed so that the reader is forced to consider whether or not the ways in which he went about his ground-breaking research were entirely ethical. Obviously, as 21st-century readers, it is easy for us to judge his behaviour using today’s standards of conduct with regard to animal welfare but there were several parts in the second half of the book that made me think more deeply about just how Darwin came to the conclusions that he did.

Syms is a very credible hero – not only brave and resourceful, but one with a strong moral code with regard to the way in which the dragons of the title are treated. Lindsay Galvin states in the book that this account of the cabin boy’s time on The Beagle is entirely fictitious, but her skill as a writer makes it feel as though the unfolding narrative is a true recount of what happened. As readers we find ourselves very clearly seeing through Syms’s eyes the whole way through the book- we feel his fear and pain and in particular we find ourselves empathising greatly when he tries to stand up for what he believes to be right but is shot down because of his lowly status.

The book is split into several sections, each of which is then sub-divided into short chapters each introduced by the delightful illustrations of Gordy Wright. These will ensure that the book will appeal greatly to both teachers, whose time for reading for pleasure is often limited, and more reluctant readers for whom longer chapters are often off-putting. As I said at the start of my review, it will be a very great shame if this book is only used as part of a science topic – a great many Year 5 readers will also enjoy this book and it could be used as a great starting point for discussions on the way in which man treats his fellow animals and also just how far we as a species should go to explore the very few remaining uninhabited areas of the world.

I very much enjoyed this book. It was thought-provoking, action-packed and while clearly fictitious was so well-researched that I felt that every word was true as I made my way through the story. I cannot wait to share this with both my class and our Year 6 teacher. A wonderful 5 out of 5 stars.

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