Monday, April 20, 2015

Pirates, Prospectors, Princes and Puppets

The Abracadabra Kid: Sid Fleischman

Sid Fleischman's first career was as a professional magician, working the last of the vaudeville circuits on the West Coast at the age of fifteen with his best friend Buddy Ryan and Ryan's big sister, Mary.  After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Fleischman worked as a reporter, an author of adult thrillers set in the Far East, and a screenwriter.  In the early 1960s, he turned his writing efforts to children's books, producing a new type of magic for generations of young readers.

Sid Fleischman (1920-2010) wrote almost fifty books for children and young adults, including biographies of Houdini and Mark Twain and a non-fiction book on magic.  His fiction included books for younger readers such as The Ghost on Saturday Night (1974), set in the American West, and his series of tall tales featuring the farmer Josh McBroom and his eleven children whose names always ran together into one whenever they were called:  

                     Willjillhesterchesterpeterpollytimtommarylarryand littleclarinda!

Try saying that three times fast.  Kids can. And they'll love the illustrations by Quentin Blake, who did such a wonderful job for Roald Dahl.

Sid Fleischman wrote a number of novels in different historical periods, the most well-known being the 18th century English tale The Whipping Boy (1986), winner of the 1987 Newbery Medal.  Other stories were set in locales in Asia, Europe and Mexico.  For time travel, there's The Thirteenth Floor: A Ghost Story (1995), and for older readers, the Holocaust themed fantasy The Entertainer and the Dybbuk (2008).  Sid Fleischman pretty much did it all.

Sid Fleischman's autobiography on the writing life is The Abracadabra Kid.  

Official Sid Fleischman Website

While some of his later works such as The Whipping Boy are still considered standards in most libraries, a lot of his earlier work is less well-known.  I've already mentioned the McBroom series of tall tales.  Another excellent adventure, set in the period of the California Gold Rush, is the topic of today's post.

Book #9:  By the Great Horn Spoon! (1963) Sid Fleischman, illustrated by Eric Von Schmidt.
                 193 pages.

The story opens on the specific date of January 27th, 1849.  Gold had been discovered in California the previous year, and anyone and everyone was heading for the West Coast to make their fortune, including twelve-year-old Jack and his family's butler, Praiseworthy.

Jack and his two sisters are being raised by their young Aunt Arabella in the family home in Boston.  Once prosperous, the family has fallen on hard times, and without a sudden reversal of fortune Aunt Arabella would within a year be reduced to selling the family home.  Jack and Praiseworthy hatch a plan to join the Gold Rush, make a fortune and save the day.  Leaving a note for the unsuspecting Aunt Arabella, the two leave and make their way to the docks. Unfortunately, their fare money was stolen as they stood on line to purchase passage tickets,  forcing them to stowaway on the good ship Lady Wilma instead.

Unknown to Jack, Praiseworthy has no intention of spending the five month trip hidden as a stowaway in a potato barrel.  On the second day of the voyage, he and Jack make their way to the ship's captain, explain their situation, and begin to work their passage off by shoveling coal into the ship's furnace.

It's a five month long trip to California by way of South America's Cape Horn, and one fraught with dangers. Through the ingenuity of Praiseworthy, the man who stole their passage money is revealed, and the pair spend the bulk of the voyage as regular passengers.  The pair come to know their fellow travelers, all also struck with Gold fever, and also assist the captain in his efforts to beat another ship to California.

Once arrived in San Francisco, the two make their way to the mining camps and eventually, after much adventure involving road agents, grizzly bears and a lost treasure map, discover gold.  Returning to San Francisco, disaster strikes, but Praiseworthy once again saves the day, and the tale ends very happily for all concerned.

Fleischman keeps the story moving at such an entertaining pace that the reader doesn't even realize the wealth of historical detail they're absorbing.  Details of ship travel in 1849, details of the expansion of San Francisco under the Gold Rush, the nature of the mining camps, boon town justice, the convergence of populations from multiple spots on the globe to the hills of California and the technical nature of gold mining itself as flow seamlessly in the story.  And, as in every book Fleischman authored, the characters are not characters, but people.  Praiseworthy and Jack are recognizable, their relationship real, and their desire to help the family is an expression of their own characters, not just a plot devise.  And don't forget the humor, there's lots of it in every chapter.  A terrific read for everyone, and a great read aloud.

By the Great Horn Spoon! at Amazon

Eric Von Schmidt (1931-2007) illustrated a number of Sid Fleischman books.  He was the son of Harold Von Schmidt, a painter of Western scenes who also illustrated for the Saturday Evening Post.  Eric Von Schmidt was also a musician, who was very involved in the emerging folk music renaissance of the 1950s on the East Coast.  He recorded a number of albums and also created album cover art for artists such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.  He and Jim Rooney were co-authors of Baby-Let Me Follow You Down (1994) a cultural history of the folk music community of the 1950s and 1960s.  In his later years, Von Schmidt focused primarily on his painting, including a series of eight large "Giants of Blues" paintings and a large canvas featuring Lewis & Clark's Corp of Discovery.

Eric Von Schmidt at Wikipedia

1 comment:

  1. Two minds! I recently included By the Great Horned Spoon in an upcoming annotated bibliography of books for early able and eager readers, to be published next year by ALA editions.