PETER DICKINSON possesses the enviable talent of being able to write all kinds of books equally well. His mystery novels -- such as The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest and The Poison Oracle -- have won England's equivalent of the Edgar; his most recent novel, Tefuga, earned acclaim for its depiction of whites and blacks in Africa; and his children's fiction has been set, with easy mastery, in both the distant past and the near future.
Dickinson first made his mark as a writer for young people in these three newly reissued novels, first published in 1968, '69, and '70, and known collectively as The Changes Trilogy. Sometime around today, or perhaps tomorrow, the entire population of England turns against all machines; indeed, the mere presence of a machine, whether automobile or electric can opener, induces a destructive frenzy, a blend of religious mania and temporary insanity. Soon England has closed in on itself "like an anemone" and cut off the island from the rest of the world. When Europeans or Americans try to investigate, they are either killed as "witches" or find themselves falling prey to the strange madness; spy planes crash repeatedly because their pilots suddenly lose all understanding of how to fly. As the Changes continue, England grows feudal, rural, simple. Dickinson's young heroines and heroes find themselves caught up in strange times indeed.
In The Devil's Children -- the first novel in the series, though the last to be written -- 12-year-old Nicola Gore joins a clan of Sikhs after she is abandoned by her maddened parents. Eventually, the Sikhs -- immune to the Changes -- must rescue a village held hostage by robbers (who wear armor and carry swords). In the wake of their victory a new community is established, a haven of peacefulness. The tone of this lyrical novel is almost Tolstoyan: the evocation of a life in harmony with nature, the workings of field and forge, an epic battle, and a gentle close. Out of confusion has arisen clarity.
By contrast, Heartsease, suggests Hawthorne in its depiction of fanaticism, in its evocation of a claustrophobic village ruled by the sinister witch-hunter Davey. At its opening young Margaret and her cousin Jonathan rescue an American "witch" stoned and left for dead; for weeks they -- along with an idiot boy and his spiteful sister -- nurse the spy back to health. Eventually, though, this resistance group must make a daring run to the sea: they repair the motor on an old boat and brave an embattled countryside before they pass into open water. Where The Devil's Children is a book filled with light, hope in reason, and the promise of community, Heartsease is set in a wintry landscape of prejudice, desperation and uncertainty, and it ends with its heroine rejecting the world of machines to stay in her pastoral purgatory.
After confusion and claustrophobia, The Weathermonger feels carefree, T.H. White out of the Boy's Own Paper. Its teen-aged protagonist Geoffrey -- gifted with shaman-like powers of weather control -- suddenly finds his mind clear of his machine-hatred and escapes with his younger sister Sally to France, though the pair eventually return to England to seek out the source of the Changes. To travel to its center, a forest in Wales, Geoffrey daringly starts up a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost and soon undergoes a series of picaresque and magical adventures on the road: he and Sally fall prey to a charming con man, swindle various yokels, are nearly killed by a mysterious cloud, discover a forbidding castle, and finally meet up with none other than the magician Merlin. Eventually, the two childen, in the best E. Nesbit fashion, become the rescuers of their country.
PARADOXICALLY in each of these Luddite books some piece of machinery takes a starring role: a forge, a boat, a car. Dickinson describes their functioning as lovingly as Kipling or a writer for Popular Mechanics. Clear and direct in his prose, Dickinson reveals an engineer's appreciation for the exact, so readers young and old may need to look up words like "tilth" or "meniscus." He is moreover a writer who refuses to repeat himself; consider his main characters: Nicola hates machines, Margaret's unsure of them, and Geoffrey quite likes them. Finally Dickinson possesses a quiet but winning sense of humor: It's heartening to see a short, fat Sikh singlehandedly defeat a trio of handsome, teen-aged ruffians.
It's also a pleasure to have these humane and intelligent books back in print, and an added bonus to be treated to their beautiful dust jacket illustrations -- in the style of medieval manuscript illumination -- by Leo and Diane Dillon.
Michael Dirda is children's book editor of Book World. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, ILLUSTRATION (c) BY LEO AND DIANE DILLON FROM "THE DEVIL'S CHILDREN"