Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Bill Brittain and the Coven Tree series

Dr. Dredd's Wagon of Wonders

Last week's lost story is still unidentified, but many thanks to Jinx, another children's librarian, for the mention of The Man Who Didn't Wash his Dishes by Phyllis Krasilovsky.  The author passed away in 2014 at the age of 87.  Dishes was illustrated by Barbara Cooney.  Krasilovsky worked with a number of illustrators, including Peter Spier on her most popular book, The Cow Who Fell into The Canal.

I will always try to provide links to a book's cover art in my posts. I don't upload the images myself because I prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to copyrights.  

Children's Book #2:  Dr. Dredd's Wagon of Wonders by Bill Brittain.  Illustrator Andrew Glass. 179 pages.

Dr. Dredd's Wagon of Wonders, published in 1987, was the third in the four book Coven Tree series, set in the fictional New England village of Coven Tree in the not so distant past.  Brittain was a prolific author of both children's and adult literature. The second book of the Coven Tree series, The Wish Giver: three tales of Coven Tree published in 1983, was a Newbery Honor book.

Dr. Dredd's is a familiar plot.  A stranger comes to town bearing gifts, but the gifts come at a very high price.  Think The Pied Piper of Hamelin, or, to be more contemporary, Stephen King's adult novel Needful Things.  In the case of Coven Tree, the stranger is the tall, gaunt, Dr. Dredd, and in his wagon of wonders lie the seeds to the town's self-destruction.

As narrated by the town's lone shopkeeper, Stewart Meade, known as Stew Meat, it was a sorry day when Dr. Dredd rolled into Coven Tree, a town named after a huge oak tree- the Coven Tree - where in days gone by witches would gather to perform their mystic rites.  Only one witch remains, Old Magda, by her own reckoning some three hundred years old and possessing only a hint of her former abilities.  The town and surrounding farms are suffering from a severe drought, and rain is on everyone's mind.  Enter Dr. Dredd, who, after offering the town a free preview of his wares, including the wrestler Antaeus and the young boy Bufu, the Rainmaker.  

Dr. Dredd strikes a deal with the mayor and other town leaders.  Bufu will provide the needed rain, and in return, Dr. Dredd will receive a small recompense, but not in the form of money.  The mayor agrees to the deal despite Dr. Dredd's evasion on the nature of his payment.

But Bufu, who is really a runaway named Calvin Huckabee taken captive by Dredd, knows only too well the nature of Dredd's payment. He escapes from Dredd, and is taken in and hidden by young Ellen McCabe and her mother.  Dredd, claims Calvin, is in league with the Devil himself, and he will destroy the town of Coven Tree the same way he's destroyed others.  He does so by infecting the population with overwhelming greed.  Instead of thinking about their town and neighbors, their only thought will be  I…Want…More.  Bickering and fighting will follow, and the town will self-destruct.

But Dredd can't do any of this until Calvin delivers the rain, and the townspeople, after a few setbacks, protect Calvin from Dredd's wrath.  They are the first town to do so, and by doing so, they destroy Dredd, who is reduced to ash, along with his wagon of wonders. 

The book pulls heavily from the New England traditions of witchcraft and the townspeople's accents and actions reflect the different personalities of the isolated rural village.  Antaeus is taken straight from Greek mythology, and his fight with Sven the village blacksmith parallels Antaeus' fight with Hercules.  Most of the items in the wagon are also from legend and myth, and it's interesting to see how many younger readers might recognize. Probably more than a few, thanks to Rowling and Riordan.

Question #2:  

A young boy loses his sight in an accident with a fire cracker.  He has a hard time adjusting until he gets a seeing-eye dog.  His name might be Johnny, and he has a little sister.  Mid-sixties, maybe.

Anyone recognize this one?

The answer is Follow My Leader by James Garfield, published 1957, identified by the fantastic school librarians on ISLMANET-I

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