Monday, July 27, 2015

Was that Thirty Degrees Below Zero?

A Resourceful Moose Adopts a Northern Town in Phil Stong's  Honk the Moose.

A while back, I wrote about writers and illustrators so closely associated that it was impossible to think of one without the other, some examples being Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, or John Bellairs and Edward Gorey.

Phil Stong and Kurt Wiese are another combination that fit that bill, and Honk the Moose is an excellent example of their perfect combination of story and illustration.

This week's review, the delightful Honk the Moose.

Book #27: Honk the Moose (1935) by Philip Stong, illustrated by Kurt Wiese. 80 pages.

It's one of the coldest winters on record in Birora, a small town situated in the rolling hills of the Iron Range in northern Minnesota. Two ten-year-old boys, best friends Waino and Ivar, are returning from an unsuccessful hunting trip, hickory skis on their shoulders, air rifles in their hands.

The boys stop in Ivar's father's livery stable, to warm themselves in his father's office. Ivar Ketonen senior boards all the horses and donkeys from the iron mines as well as the horses from the lumber camps, and acts as their doctor.  Both of the boy's parents are immigrants from Finland, as is most of the  population in Birora.

The two boys sit by the stove and begin to wax their skis with harness oil, while imagining a hunting trip with a different outcome from the days, one that involved shooting a moose. At that very moment, they hear a strange noise from the stable, a very sad sound of haawwnnkk-hawnk-hawnk-haawwnnkk.

Both boys are scared, but Ivar reminds himself that he is a Suomi, a brave Finlander, just like the Finnish hero Vainamoinen. He switches on the light and goes forth, and Waino, following behind him, suggests that it might be a moose.

It is a moose.

A very tired, very hungry, very skinny moose, who has somehow managed to wander into the livery stable and was now eating the hay Ivar's father had bought for the horses.

The boys beat a judicious retreat to the office and lock the door. Ivar declares that he should go and shoot the moose, but tenderhearted Waino disagrees; the moose isn't hurting anybody. Ivar begins to get mad, mad that they are stranded in his father's office, and mad that the moose is eating the expensive hay. Eating quite a lot of the expensive hay. Gathering his courage once again, he leaves the office, Waino trailing in his wake, and informs the moose that he needs to leave right now. The moose is very big, but no longer sad, the hay is doing the trick. His reply to Ivar's demand is to turn his huge head slightly and go hawnk . The boys are back in the office with the door locked and bolted before the final k.

Eventually, Ivar's father returns, and the boys stumble over each other to explain that there is a moose in the stable. He laughs, tells them it is only a horse, and the three of them exit the office towards the stable. Seconds later, the boys are swept back into the office, Mr. Ketonen is there also, and states that there is a moose in the stable.

The boys know this.

While Mr. Ketonen and the boys discuss what is to be done, the moose collapses in the stable and goes to sleep, his belly now full to bursting. Ivar's father tries to prod him awake, but the moose sleeps on. By now, Ivar is starting to feel sorry for the moose, but his father, alarmed at the cost of hay and worried that the moose might be dangerous, tells his son and Waino to go get the policeman.

The boys go, reluctantly, and find Mr. Ryan, the policeman, in the mayor's office over the fire station. There is some confusion, Mr. Ryan thinks the moose the boys are referring to is just a big man, "moose" being Minnesota slang for the same.

At the stable, Mr. Ryan is surprised to find a real, very live, very big moose asleep in the stable. The moose was dreaming about People, he is a young moose, just recently fully grown, and honked at the People once or twice in his dream.

Mr. Ketonen and Mr. Ryan discuss what's to be done, and there is some half-hearted talk of shooting the moose, a course of action that is now clearly unpopular with everyone. Ivar's father conceded that the moose, Honk, can have his hay, but what will the horses think?

The mayor is sent for, a Mr. Nels Olavsson, and more discussion as to Honk's fate takes place. The boys hear the mayor tell Mr. Ryan that Honk will be disposed of once he wakes up, so they take turns bouncing up and down on him as hard as then can, hoping to wake him up and get him to go away before the adults dispose of him.  Honk utters a few faint hawnks in response to their efforts and continues to sleep.

Finally, Ivar senior says that he will take care of the moose until he leaves, but under no circumstances will he allow Honk to be shot. The mayor says that it's not necessary for Ivar to do it all himself, and calls a meeting of the town council, Mr. Lunn, Mr. Hulburd, and Mr. Hoaglund.  They decide that the town will pay Mr. Ketonen for his hay, but that Mr. Ryan must stay the night in the stable. If Honk makes a fuss, Mr. Ryan must shoot him.  If he leaves on his own, then everything will be all right.

Sometime that night, Honk left.

But he came back the next day, returning to the same stall in the stable and eating more of Mr. Ketonen's hay. Honk allowed the little things - the boys - to pet him.  He was becoming very fond of the little things, and that affection was returned.

The adults were another matter.  The mayor told Mr. Ketonen to lock his stable doors so that Honk could not get in again, and said that the town would not pay for any more hay. Mr. Ketonen did so, but the boys felt sorry for Honk, so they smuggled hay out to him to eat by the town bandstand. Honk was happy, until the boys tried to leave. Honk wanted them to stay, and voiced his displeasure with a series of loud HAWNKS!

The boys finally sneak away, but it's no use; Honk follows them, and the whole town is witness.  The mayor tells Ivar senior to put Honk in a stall, it appears the town was going to have a moose whether it wanted one or not.

Eventually, everyone gets use to Honk, who enjoyed wandering about the town, occasionally helping himself to the storekeepers' baskets of produce on the sidewalk, until they wised up and pulled everything inside when they saw Honk coming.

But in the spring, Honk left, returning to the woods beyond Birora, where tender grass was now plentiful. That winter was also mild, so the boys became resigned to the fact that Honk would not be returning.

Then one winter's day, returning from a wonderful day of fort building, the boys saw a group of adults standing at the entrance to the stable. Curious, they drew closer, and as they did, they heard the welcome sound of HAWNK!

Honk had come home.

This delightful book is based on the true story of a moose that made itself at home one winter in the town of Biwabik, Minnesota.  During his brief tenure as a teacher and basketball coach at Biwabik High School, Phil Stong heard the story and decided that it would make a great children's book.

He was right.

Stong's book is a time capsule of immigrant life in northern Minnesota.  Just like the real-life Biwabik, the fictional Birora, Minnesota is a mining town populated primarily by families of Finnish and Swedish descent.

The conversations in the book reflect the mindset of the people at the time, and Stong infuses the story with a great deal of humor and obvious affection for the characters. The reader knows from the beginning that despite all of the conversation, there will be no shooting of any sort taking place. Ivar senior, despite his size, is a softie at heart, and even the policeman Mr. Ryan dislikes the idea of arresting anyone, unless they absolutely and truly deserve it.

In the very first paragraph, Stong writes, "Ivar was pretty certain that he had shot a rabbit with his thousand-shooting air gun but the rabbit was pretty sure he hadn't." Shortly thereafter, his friend Waino says that he was glad they didn't shoot a deer, since deer are pretty nice and they don't hurt anybody.

Not exactly a bloodthirsty crew.

The illustrations by Wiese are priceless, perfect for the story, mostly black and white but a few full page with colors.  The expressions on Honk's face make it perfectly clear to the reader who's actually in charge, and just like the boys, the reader will celebrate when the big moose returns to the Birora stable the following year.

A great read aloud, plus a solid starting point for a discussion on immigration and wildlife conservation.

Honk the Moose was a 1936 Newbery Medal Honor Book.

Honk the Moose at Trellis Publishing, Inc.

Moose sounds on YouTube

The true story behind Honk the Moose  at Minnesota Public Radio.

Phil Stong (1899-1957) was born in Iowa and died in Connecticut. He began as a teacher and a journalist, working in different locations in the Midwest, including his alma mater Drake University, and then solely as a journalist in New York City for the Associated Press, the North American Paper Alliance, and others. In 1925, he married Virginia Swain, a reporter and writer.

In 1931, he began writing fiction as a full-time profession. Stong wrote for both children and adults, with several of his works adapted for motion pictures. Of his twenty-some adult works, the most popular was State Fair (1932), which was adapted three times as a film and once as a Broadway musical.

Stong also has the distinction of compiling one of the first anthologies of science-fiction, many of its selections culled from the pulps, originally titled The Other Worlds (1941), later released with the subtitle 25 Modern Stories of Mystery and Imagination.

Of his nineteen books for children, fifteen were illustrated by Wiese.

Phil Stong Manuscripts at the University of Iowa Libraries.

Kurt Wiese (1887-1974) was born in Minden, Germany, emigrated to the United States in 1927 and died at Frenchtown, New Jersey in 1974.

Wiese knew early on that he wanted to be an artist, but lacked family support. Instead, he learned the export trade and worked and traveled in China from 1909 until the outbreak of war in 1914. Captured by the Japanese, turned over to the British, Wiese was sent to a prison camp in Trial Bay, Australia.

During his five years at the prison camp, Wiese passed his time conducting a class in Chinese and drawing.  Returning to Germany via Africa in 1919, he decided to draw full-time after selling his entire production to a publisher.  Following the economic disaster in post-war Germany, Wiese emigrated to Brazil, traveling through the jungles, native peoples, and revolution.  He continued drawing, and in 1927 emigrated again to New York City.  In 1929, Wiese illustrated Bambi by Felix Salten, drawing twenty-five illustrations in five days and establishing his reputation. In 1930, he married Gertrude Hansen and they settled in a farm in Frenchtown, NJ.

Wiese, solely self-taught, illustrated over four hundred children's books, and wrote and illustrated about twenty of his own. Pick an author active during Wiese's forty-five year career, and he more than likely illustrated at least one of their books. The list includes Felix Salten, Marjorie Flack, Marguerite Henry, Walter Rollin Brooks, and many, many more.

Wiese received the Caldecott Honor Book award for You Can Write Chinese (1946) and Fish in the Air (1948).

Kurt Wiese at the Michener Art Museum.

Kurt Wiese Papers at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Monday, July 20, 2015

True or False: The Book is the Author's, the Story is the Reader's.

Good Book, Bad Author: William Mayne and Hob and the Goblins.

This is how, with the exception of Emil and the Detectives, I choose the books that I review for this blog.

I walk through the stacks.

I pick out three to five books, all vintage.

I take them home, start reading, or rereading as is more often the case, and the first one that captures my interest, I review.

Sometimes I'm familiar with the author, sometimes I'm not.

This week's book was a slam dunk in terms of quality, extremely well-written, imaginative and exceptionally paced.  Fantastic and fitting cover art. Loved it.

Then, I began to research the author.


Let's start with the good…here's this week's review of Hob and the Goblins.

Book #26: Hob and the Goblins by William Mayne (1993), illustrated by Norman Messenger.
140 pages.

Hob is a small creature who lives in the cutch* under the stairs in a family's house. Hob is very old, so old that he was created before there was Thinking, and has had many families.  Hob lives very much in the Here and Now, without distinct memories of his past or much - if any- ability to visualize a future beyond the immediate moment.

Hob's function is to help the families with whom he lives, sleeping in his cutch by day and working largely through the night. There is no wand waving or spell casting, but practical efforts like filling the woodbox for the fire, entertaining the baby, and other mundane tasks. Hob keeps himself invisible most of the time, but it does require effort, and if he is distracted, he will appear to those humans around him. Children will readily admit to seeing him, and while adults may see him, they will still not believe in him.

Hob can be waylaid in his mission to help a family if he is given clothes to wear over his own Hobskin.   As soon as he dons a single garment, he begins to forget about the family and soon goes off on his merry way, full of pride in his appearance and with no thought of any others. As he begins to lose his clothing, he begins to remember that he should be helping a family, but he will be unable to do so until all of the clothes are gone.

This is where the story of Hob and the Goblins begins. After some slight misadventure with a gremlin on a London bus, Hob, who after a century has finally shed the last of his clothing, finds himself in the London home of the Grimes family, parents Charlie and Alice, children Tom and Meg, and their bird Budgie.  Charlie has just been unfairly fired due to a mishap with his bus - caused by the gremlin - and the family makes the decision to move to the country. Charlie is the heir to a cottage that belonged to his great-great Uncle Fluellen, who disappeared a hundred years ago. The name of the cottage is Fairy Ring Cottage.

As soon as Hob hears the name, he is horrified.  The cottage is a wicked place, standing, as it does, over a crock of gold that belongs to, not fairies, but goblins, goblins who make fantastic swords and relish a fight. A hundred years ago, Fluellen, who was a sorcerer, devised what he thought was a foolproof plan to steal the gold away from the goblins and escape. Fluellen knew that to accept a bite to eat would be fatal; he would spend the rest of his existence eating that first meal. Fluellen brought his fiddle, and intended to distract the goblins from the gold by causing them to dance while he made his escape. As time passes differently in the goblin's world, a hundred years later he was still making his escape, but the day of escape was drawing near.

Hob remembers this only in bits and pieces, unable to put all the pieces together because he cannot think, but he knows that what will occur will be very bad, and that in helping the Grimes family that Hob will die, and be no more.

But help he must, and off he goes to the country with the family.  Hob knows that something is not right from the very beginning. Children appear to play with Meg and Tom, children whose fingers are webbed, goblin children. There are strange noises and strange sounds. Rumblings from the basement, shudderings felt throughout the house. It's not the house settling, it's the reverberations of the Goblin King's footsteps, as he approaches the opening in the basement between the worlds of the Goblins and the Grimes. The children acknowledge Hob, and eventually does their mother, but Charlie resists, as he resists anything but everyday explanations for extraordinary occurrences.

The Grimes are visited frequently by Mrs. Idris Evans, who makes most peculiar comments and allows that they should leave.  Idris is really a witch, and was once Fluellen's housekeeper.  She wants the gold  too, as well as the obeisance of the goblins. Idris comes up with a plan to get Hob away from the Grimes, delivering a package of clothing to his cutch via Meg.  Hob, unwrapping the package, puts on the clothing, forgets his family and heads away for London-town.

But something is different this time.  Hob's forgetfulness is not complete. He feels hunger as a necessity, not just as an optional pastime.  He falls in with a group of dwarfs, and at their home in the mountain is forced to work on their forges. The day of his epiphany, that he must return and help the Grimes family defeat the Goblin King, he steals three swords, discards the bulk of his clothing and makes it back to the house just as Fluellen is about to break through, the goblins and the Goblin King hot on his trail.

The family had been about to leave, but now all, including Tom and Meg, are engaged with fighting off the goblins, Goblin King, and witch. Fluellen has made it through with the crock of gold on his back, but the magic of the goblin world is gone, and he transforms before their eyes into an old, old man. The floor of the basement is thick with goblin blood as goblins slice quite neatly. Hob has blown himself up to the same size as the Goblin King, over seven feet tall, and triumph appears imminent, but then the Goblin Kings escapes outside.

Only, to be faced with the Bus, specifically Charlie's old bus. His boss has come to the cottage to ask Charlie to come back to his job. It seems the entire fleet has been afflicted by the same troubles as Charlie experienced, so they know now that Charlie is not the culprit. While conveying this to Charlie, the bus takes off on its own, circling the house, hinting its horn, flashing its headlights. The bus is not acting of its own accord, of course, it's the gremlin driving the bus, the same one that caused trouble for Charlie back in London.

The gremlin redeems itself here by driving straight into the Goblin King, forcing it to explode and destruct.  Calm once again the order of the day, the family, with Hob, retires inside for a cup of tea.  Alice has already got the fire started, using the old leaves from the old pot on the table, a pot that only moments before had been filled with goblin gold.

Hob and the Goblins at

And now the bad, the very bad.

The back jacket flap of Hob describes Mayne as a winner of both the Carnegie Medal (1957 A Grass Rope) and The Guardian Children's Fiction Award. Alison Lurie, co-editor of the Garland Library of Children's Classics (1990) and frequent reviewer for the New York Review of Books, described his work as "some of the best fantasy and time-travel fiction to come out of England since Tolkien."

Mayne was born in 1928 in England and wrote over 130 books for children. He was regarded as one of the finest writers in children's literature by any number of respected authorities, and was enjoying the life of an eccentric bachelor and all around character from his home in the village of Thornton Rust on the Yorkshire Dales in England.

Then, in 2004 he was convicted of indecent assaults against a number of young girls, dating back over 40 years.  He served a two and a half year prison term and was released, his career gone and reputation destroyed.  He died at the age of 82 in 2010.

I have no interest in writing about William Mayne.  If you are interested, you can read his obituary here, as published by The Independent.  Unlike a host of other criminal acts, including murder, child abuse has no mitigating circumstances. Ever.

So, where does that leave the books?

A book is not its author, and a story belongs to the reader.  The minute a child picks up a book and begins to read, the words on the page belong to them, and the story they take away from the book is uniquely theirs.

Hob and the Goblins is a wonderful book.  Wonderful books should be read.

So, what do you do as a librarian with a wonderful book written by a despicable author?

I surfed the Internet for articles concerning good books written by bad people (a simplification, yes, but I found relevant articles).  Opinions were all over the board; I tried to include articles that covered the spectrum, which are listed below.

The Author Abused Children: Should We Read His Books? from The Guardian. (re: Mayne)

Good Art, Bad People  op-ed at New York Times.

Bad Deeds Don'r Ruin Great Art  from Time magazine.

When Great Art Happens to Bad People from The Atlantic magazine

When Bad People Write Great Books from Salon.

Op-ed on Marion Zimmer Bradley from the Washington Post.

Rape, Abuse, and Marion Zimmer Bradley by fantasy author Jim C. Hines.

Very few of Mayne's books are available in my area libraries, aside from Hob, out of 130 books representing over forty years of writing, the choices were the picture books Lady Muck, Pandora, Tibber, and Barnabas Walks.

And that's all.

Monday, July 13, 2015

75 Years Later: A Miracle of World War II Revisited

 Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose: a story of Dunkirk.

I did a quick catalog search for Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose before writing this entry and came away with the following results.

Of the seven libraries, three cataloged The Snow Goose as adult fiction, two cataloged the book as juvenile fiction, and two cataloged the title as both adult and juvenile fiction.

I'm sensing some ambiguity.

Rightly so.

The Snow Goose, its full title being The Snow Goose: a story of Dunkirk, first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1940. In 1941, it was one of the O'Henry Prize winners.  The story has been included in numerous anthologies, including Three Legends by Paul Gallico which also include his stories "The Small Miracle" and "Ludmila",  and also as a stand-alone book with illustrations by Peter Scott, Beth Peck, Angela Barrett, and Anne Linton.

It is impossible for a modern reader to understand the full import of the story without first knowing of the 1940 Battle of Dunkirk and subsequent evacuation of troops from Dunkirk known as the Miracle of Dunkirk.

On September 1, 1939, Germany, under the leadership of Adolph Hitler and his Nazi Party, invaded Poland. On September 3, 1939,  Britain and France declared war on Germany.

Germany then successfully invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, then began its drive through France, advancing through the Ardennes and proceeding towards the English Channel.  Britain had sent its BEF (British Expeditionary Force) to aid the French in their defense, and now, by the 21st of May, 1940, the BEF, three French armies and what was left of the Belgium forces were trapped on the northern coast of France by the superior German forces.  The commander of the BEF decided that evacuation was the best option, and ordered all troops to Dunkirk, a seaport town on the Strait of Dover.

The situation was dire. Then, on the 22nd of May, a halt order was issued with Hitler's approval. The reasons behind this decision vary, but it was a godsend for the Allies. This delay allowed the Allied troops time to pull more men towards Dunkirk and construct defensive works against the Germans in anticipation of the ensuing Battle of Dunkirk.

From May 28 to May 31, the vastly outnumbered remaining troops of the French First Army fought a delaying tactic against seven German divisions, three armored, in the Siege of Lille.

Meanwhile, an assorted combine of some 800 boats, including merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure boats and even life boats carried out the task of evacuating over 300,000 soldiers from the beaches and coastal waters to a waiting flotilla of 39 British destroyers and other large ships.

The BEF lost 68,000 soldiers during the French campaign and nearly all of their tanks and other equipment. The loss was devastating; the rescue miraculous.

The English needed al the miracles they could get. Less than a month later, on July 10, the Germans began a series of bombing raids on Great Britain, lasting over three and a half months, known as the Battle of Britain.

Gallico's The Snow Goose: a story of Dunkirk was published in the Saturday Evening Post mere months after the event.

Book #25: The Snow Goose: a story of Dunkirk (1992) by Paul Gallico, illustrated by Beth Peck. 45 pages.

The solitary inhabitant of an abandoned lighthouse situated in the great march along the Essex coast, twenty-seven year old Philip Rhayader spends his days painting scenes of birds and nature. A humpback with a twisted and deformed left arm, he has withdrawn from all human society except for his periodic trips into the little village of Chelmbury for supplies.

Far from being bitter about his physical burdens, Rhayader is filled with love for man, the animal kingdom, and all nature. He has chosen seclusion because he could not find anywhere a return for the warmth he felt inside, and could not stand the fact that others had to "make an effort" in order to get to know him.

From his home at the lighthouse, he would take his sixteen-footer sailboat and be gone for days at a time, looking for new birds to photograph and sketch. Some he added to his collection of tamed waterfowl, which formed the nucleus of sanctuary. He never shot a bird, and did not allow others to shoot them, and the birds repaid his kindness with their friendship. Some were pinioned, and remained at the lighthouse year-round, as a sign to the migrating wild birds that here at the lighthouse they would find food and sanctuary.

Rhayader painting incessantly, stockpiling a huge number of canvases, only a few of which he deigned to sell.  Those making their way to the marketplace were classified as masterpieces.

Three years later, when Rhayader was thirty, a young girl named Fritha, from the fisherfolk at Wickaeldroth, came to his door with a wounded snow goose. She was very scared, because she'd heard any number of fantastic tales of the ogre who lived in the lighthouse, but at the same time she knew instinctively that it was from this ogre she would find the help she needed.

Rhayader tends to the snow goose's wounds, she had been shot, and the goose begins to mend. Fritha is a frequent visitor, and Rhayader shows her a map of the world with Canada, the home of the snow goose. In June, the snow goose is well enough to migrate northward, and Fritha's visits come to an abrupt end.

Rhayader misses both of them, and experiences loneliness all over again. He paints a picture of the two of them, as they first appeared to him, a young, grime-covered child with a wounded snow goose in her arms.

Years pass, and every year except for one, the snow goose returns in the winter.  When the snow goose returns, Fritha's visits resume. Outside of the marsh, the world seethed and boiled, the beginning of an eruption that came close to marking its destruction, but the marsh was untouched.

In the spring of 1940, the birds migrated early from Rhayader's lighthouse, all except for the snow goose.  She's chosen Rhayader's lighthouse as her home - of her own free will.  Fritha, now a grown woman, remarks on this to Rhayader, and when she does, she realizes, from the look in Rhayader's eyes, that he loves her. Frightened by her knew knowledge, she stammers a good-bye and leaves.

Three weeks later she returns to the lighthouse, only to find Rhayader preparing his boat for a trip.  Excited, he tells her that he must go on a little trip but that he will come back. He explains the situation at Dunkirk - the men are trapped, his boat, along with many others, is needed to evacuate the men from the beaches to the safety of the destroyers.

While he is talking, Fritha realizes that he was no longer misshapen or grotesque, but beautiful.  She tells him that she will go with him, but he refuses her, saying her space on the boat is needed by the soldiers.  She reluctantly agrees, promises to watch over the birds while he is gone, then stands on the shore watching him sail away - not alone - the snow goose has joined him, it is the two of them that will journey forth, until both are beyond her vision.

The next part of the story is told in the voices of men who were rescued at Dunkirk, painting a vivid picture of their conditions.  Several of the men were discussing the boat with the snow goose, and the man who sailed it, rescuing an untold number of soldiers.

The last story they told was of the appearance of the snow goose before the captain of a Limehouse tug across he Straits of Dover, towing a string of Thames barges carrying soldiers. He's already heard of the legend o the snow goose, that a glimpse of the bird guaranteed a man's safe reduce, when he spotted it perched on a derelict small boat, a boat with a body in her.  It was Rhayader, dead from a machine gun.  When they got close enough, on of the deckhands attempted to reach the bird, but she hissed at him and struck him with her wings.  At that moment, another man hailed and pointed starboard.  A big German mine was floating in the water, and had the snow goose not attracted their attention and made them change their course, they would have sailed right into it, killing everyone.

The men blew up the mine with rifle fire, but when they turned their attention back to the bird, they saw the boat was gone, sunk by concussion, and Rhayader with it. As they watched, the snow goose rose into the sky, circled Rhayader's boat three times, and then flew west.

Back at the lighthouse, Fritha knows without being told that Rhayder will never return.  She wanders the lighthouse, and discovers the portrait Rhayader painted of her years ago, holding the snow goose.

There's a cry from the heavens outside, a high-pitched, well remembered note and Fritha hurries outside to see the snow goose in the sky. She knows that it is the soul of Rhayader, bidding her his love and farewell.  She answers in kind, then watches the snow goose fly away, the soul of Rhayder departing from her forever.

Back in the lighthouse, she takes the portrait and brings it back to her home for safekeeping. Every night, for weeks afterwards, she returns to feed the pinioned birds. One morning, the lighthouse is bombed by a German pilot on a dawn raid, blowing the lighthouse and everything in it into oblivion. By night, when Fritha arrives, the sea has covered all, and it the scene is one of utter desolation.

A children's story?


It is a beautiful story, a powerful story, and a sentimental story, but it is not a children's story.

It is also not a children's book. Paul Gallico said that he was at heart a storyteller, and that when he wrote, he wrote fairy tales. It is a good thing to remember that the original fairy tales were also not children's stories (read J.R.R. Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories" here). The Snow Goose, in my opinion, qualifies as a fairy tale that borders on a parable. Parables are short, allegorical stories used to teach a moral or spiritual lesson. Rhayader and Firtha are never real people, and not because Gallico couldn't write real people, he could, and wonderfully so. Rhayader and Firtha are figures representing Innocence, Compassion, Love and Sacrifice, and they are effective in those roles, but when reading the story, you never get a feel for either one of them as individuals. The only people who come off as people are those giving their accounts of the events at Dunkirk near the end of the story, the Private Pottons, the Jocks, the Brill-Oudeners, and those accounts are adult accounts, intended for the ears of other adults.

Gallico started as a sportswriter in the 1920s, and wrote prolifically until his death in 1976.  It wasn't until the 1960s that he actually wrote books expressly for children, examples being The Day the Guinea Pig Talked (1963), The Day Jean-Pierre Went Around the World (1966), and Manxmouse (1968).

I'm not sure at what point The Snow Goose came to be regarded as a children's story. My guess would be about the time of the 1971 TV movie starring Jenny Agutter and Richard Harris. I've never seen it, but both Agutter and Harris are wonderful actors, Agutter won an Emmy for her portrayal of Firtha, and Gallico wrote the screenplay, so quality was obviously present in abundance.  Plus, his previous decade's output of children's books may have influenced the shift from adult novella to children's classic.

But a movie is not a book, and I can't envision any child reading, or having The Snow Goose read to them, with any great enthusiasm.  The language is adult (I don't mean profane, I mean adult) and slightly stylized, and religious symbolism overt, and the relationship between Rhayader and Firtha complex.

And sentimental, which works with the story. For those who would dismiss the sentimental at all costs, I offer Mr. Gallico's words on the subject: the contest between sentiment and slime, sentiment remains so far out in front, as it always has and always will among ordinary humans that the calamity-howlers and porn merchants have to increase the decibels of their lamentations, the hideousness of their violence and the mountainous piles of their filth to keep in the race at all.

On a final note, The Snow Goose was the most popular of all of Gallico's books, and one of its biggest fans?

Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway was one of Gallico's heroes.  One night at the Stork Club, Gallico sat at the bar and found that Hemingway was sitting right next to him.  They introduced themselves and Hemingway said, "You know Gallico, Snow Goose - I wish I'd written that."

Okay, then.

All the above none withstanding,  I love the story of The Snow Goose: a story of Dunkirk.  Just not for children.

The Snow Goose: a story of Dunkirk at Amazon.

Paul Gallico (1897 - 1976) was born in New York City and died in Monaco. He came from a musical family, but knew from an early age that he wanted to be a writer.  He wrote his first short story when he was ten years old, on a visit to Brussels with his parent to attend the World's Fair.  He attended Columbia University as a pre-med student, then enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1918.  In 1921, he graduated from Columbia University and got a job as a review secretary with the National Board of Motion Picture Review.

In 1922 he joined the staff of the New York Dailey News, writing a sports column and eventually becoming the sports editor.  He created the Golden Gloves competition for amateur boxers, and got into promoting sporting events. In 1936, he gave up sports writing to be a freelance fiction writer.

Over the next forty years, Gallico wrote 41 novels, a large number of short stories, twenty theatrical movies, twelve television films,  and a television series. In 1950, he moved to Europe, and never again had a permanent residence in the United States, but he always considered himself first and foremost an American citizen.

Some of Gallico's other works include Love of Seven Dolls (1954), the basis of the film Lili (1953), Lou Gerhig: Pride of the Yankees (1942), the base for the 1942 film "The Pride of the Yankees",  Thomasina: The Cat Who Thought She Was God (1957), the base of a Disney film "The Three Lives of Thomasina" (1963), The Silent Miouw: A Manual for Kittens, Strays, and Homeless Cats (1964), The Abandoned (in USA) or Jennie (in UK) (1950), The Hand of Mary Constable (1964), and The Poseidon Adventure (1969).

Recommendation #1: Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris (1958) by Paul Gallico, illustrated by Gioia Fiammenghi. 157 pages.

Forget its sequels and forget the horrible movie with the same title starring Angela Lansbury. Just read this book.

This is a book marketed and cataloged as adult fiction, but perfectly readable by any middle-schooler and up.

All charlady Ada Harris wants is a genuine Dior dress, and after three years of scrimping, saving, and a bit good fortune via the football pool, her dream is finally in her reach.  But, it takes the help of many a good French citizen to fulfill Mrs. Harris's heart's desire, and Mrs. Harris returns their help in spades.

All the characters in the book are fully fleshed out and recognizable, the story is wonderful, the dialogue priceless, the glimpse into 1950s Paris and the House of Dior entirely entertaining, and yes, you will experience the occasional throat-tightening and tear-to-the-eye when reading certain passages.

It's a fairy tale. It has a happy ending. I love it.

So will you.

Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris at Amazon.

The Literature of Paul Gallico website.  Great resource for information on his books by Martin Benson.

The Miracle at Dunkirk at Eyewitness to website.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

An Unconventional Woman in a Very Conventional Time

Edith Nesbit and the Fabians; E. Nesbit and Five Children and It  

If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride -  Old English proverb 

If a man could have half of his wishes, he would double his trouble - Benjamin Franklin

Wishing don't make it so - Anonymous

Used as a noun,  a wish is defined as a desire or longing for a specific thing or event.  Used as a verb, to wish is defined as to desire, to long for, or to want a specific thing or event.  

We blow out the candles on a birthday cake and make a wish. We throw pennies into a fountain and make a wish. We gaze into the night sky and wish upon a star.

Star light, star bright
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may,
I wish I might
Have the wish I wish,

Wishes fall under the category of magical thinking, the mind set of if I just wish hard enough, want it hard enough, then it will happen.  Our wishes express our desires, and our desires are shaped by our circumstances. A well-fed, well-loved child wishes for a pony, or to have ice cream for breakfast, or to fly to the moon and back before dinner. A child of less fortunate circumstance will wish for others things entirely: food to eat, clothes to wear, a place to go that's safe and warm.

For many of the children (and adults) in 19th century England, wishing for food, clothing and shelter was as close as they'd ever come to actually experiencing these three basic necessities. The Industrial Revolution that began in the late 18th century and progressed with ever increasing speed into the 19th had transformed England from an agricultural economy to an industrial one. The combination of new technologies, the development of the factory system, the expansion of transportation systems and the widespread acceptance of laissez-faire economic policies destroyed the centuries-old agricultural lifestyle, forcing a large percentage of the rural population to uproot and migrate to the urban industrial centers.

This massive societal shift came at a high cost to the displaced population and served as an impetus to the ideas and conversations focused on reshaping society into a more equitable and just model.  Dickens made a career out of addressing the evils of industrialization and the cost of such to the individual in his writings.

One of the most influential groups - mighty in scope if not in actual size - of post-Industrial Revolution England was the Fabian Society. The Fabian Society's goal was a reconstruction of British society based on socialist principles.  They were not revolutionaries, they had no interest in class struggles or violent overthrowings, but instead focused on a gradual permeation of socialist principles into government and daily life through education and public advocacy. Among other things, Fabians wanted municipal ownership of certain utilities, better working conditions for workers, an eight-hour workday, women's suffrage, universal health care and a free educational system. And they weren't interested in wishing for them, they were interested in working for them, and work for them they did, quite often successfully, and not a one of them worked harder than Edith Nesbit, the author of Five Children and It.

Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) was born in Greater London, the youngest of six children in the family of John Collis Nesbit, an agricultural chemist, and his wife, Sarah.  John ran the family agricultural college.  He died when Edith was four years old, and the ensuing years were spent traveling with her mother and older sister Mary in search of an agreeable climate in various European countries (Mary suffered from tuberculosis), shuttled off to inexpensive boarding schools, or enduring extended stays at assorted relatives' homes. In 1880, seven months pregnant, she married Hubert Bland, a bank clark and political socialist.

The two had an unconventional marriage from the start, for Hubert by choice, for Edith by necessity.  After their marriage, both continued to live separately with their families. Hubert lived with his mother and her friend, a friend who was under the impression that she was his fiancee and who also bore him a child.  After Edith found out about it, she and Bland moved in together, and Edith adopted the other woman's child. Nesbit lost three of her own children, two were stillborn and she and Bland's son Fabian died at the age of fifteen after an operation to remove his tonsils.

Bland continued to have affairs, and Edith continued to adopt the resulting children.  Somewhere along the line, Edith decided that what was good for the goose was also good for the gander, and embarked on a series of affairs with various men.

It was Bland who interested Edith in socialism, and it was the two of them, along with Thomas Davidson, Edward Carpenter, William Clarke, Havelock Ellis, Edith Lees, Henry Stevens Salt, future prime minister Ramsey McDonald, Edward Pease and Frank Podmore that formed the socialist organization, The Fellowship of New Life in 1883.  The FNL was the immediate predecessor of the Fabian Society, and the Fabian Society was formed the following year by a splinter group of Nesbit, Bland, Pease and Podmore. This core group was later augmented with the addition of George Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, Annie Besant and H.G. Wells. An interesting group, to say the least.

Nesbit and Bland edited the Fabian Society's journal Today.  Working independently and together, the two wrote pamphlets and articles espousing the Society's desired end results. Edith also lectured frequently on the goals of the Society. The two were famous for the parties they held at their home, the dilapidated Well Hall in Kent, frequented by artists, journalists, politicians and other literary types. Edith was a striking figure, tall, her dark hair cut short, arms covered with bangles and the ever present cigarette in a long holder firmly between her lips.

Bland's talents didn't extend towards supporting his family financially, the role of major breadwinner fell to Edith. In the 1880s she published two novels for adults under the name of Fabian Bland. But it was her children's novel The Story of the Treasure-Seekers, published in 1899 under the name E. Nesbit, that marked the beginning of her overwhelming success as a writer about and for children. Other books followed, and then in 1902 the first of three books of the Psammead series appeared, the subject of this review, Five Children and It.

Book #24: Five Children and It (1902), by E. Nesbit, illustrated by H.R. Millar.  237 pages.

The five children of the title are Cyril, Anthea a.k.a. Panther, Robert, Jane and Lamb, the baby brother.

Like many of Nesbit's fictional families, the family, whose last name is never mentioned, is middle-class  but not solidly middle-class. After two years of living in London, the family is moving to a spot deep in the country, into a white house with no near neighbors situated between a gravel pit and a chalk-quarry.

London, as the narrator points out, something the narrator does quite frequently throughout the book, is a wonderful place full os shops and theaters, but if your people are rather poor - as is the family of the five children - you don't get taken to shops and theaters, and London is full of things a child mustn't touch, and having fun in a city is so much more difficult for children because of this.

To the five children - if not their mother - their new home is just a shade short of Paradise. Father is already absent, away on business, when Mother also leaves for an extended period to tend to their sick Grandmother.  Alone in the house except for the servants, the children are free to explore their new surroundings.

It's on the day they explore the gravel-pits that they meet the Psammead, an ancient Sand-fairy with the ability - imperative -  to grant wishes.  The Psammead has a short furry body, eyes like a snail's, bat's ears, a tubby body shaped like a spider's, fuzzy arms and legs and hands and feet like a monkey's and a deathly fear of water.  The Psammead is not at all happy about being disturbed by the children, and can be quite disagreeable, but does respond to deference and flattery.

The children are to be granted one wish a day, each wish effective until sunset, and deciding upon a wish turns out to be much more problematic than they could have anticipated.  One only thinks that coming up with wishes is easy if one has never been in the position of actually having to do so.

When the children do make wishes, none come out exactly they way they anticipate.  First, they wished to be as beautiful as the day is long.  Granted, but then no one recognized them and they couldn't get into their own house because Martha, the maid, didn't recognize them and they spent the day hungry and miserable.

Slightly wiser the next day, they wished that the servants in their house would not be able to see the results of any of their wishes, which made perfect sense until they then wished to be rich beyond avarice.  The gravel pit filled with gold coins, but when the children tried to spend them they ended up in police custody, because they coins were old and of solid gold and no one would tai ether as payment and the police thought, maybe that they were stolen.

Later, they wish for wings to fly, which was glorious until they fell asleep on the top of a church and woke up after sunset, stranded and unable to get down.

It's one mishap after another, but it's not until their Mother, newly returned from nursing they Grandmother, faces the threat of prison because of one of their wishes that the children finally make the perfect wish, and that is that the Psammead, who has finally confessed to the girls how tiring and terrifying it is to always be granting other people's wishes, be no longer be compelled to grant any more of their wishes. The Psammead is happy, and so, now, are the children.

Nesbit gets siblings; she gets the relationships, the changing alliances, and the ups and downs of living in a large family.  Their conversations contain language and phrases of the time, the book was published over a hundred years ago, but readers will have no problem understanding their meaning - brothers and sisters have been communicating in the same manner since time immemorial.

The one sensitive area is the chapter involving Red Indians.  They are Indians as imagined by English children of the 19th century and stereotypes abound.  Discussion is imperative for younger readers.

Nesbit's writing style is direct and to the point, loaded with wry humor and keen observation - the chapter where Robert attempts to hold a conversation with the medieval knight Wulfric de Talbot is worth the price of admission. The children do gain a bit of wisdom over the course of the story, but at the end, they are still children, imperfect and still largely focused on their own small universe, with just the occasional insight into the larger adult world waiting for them just around the corner.

Nesbit gets in a bit of adult concerns at the very end of the book, in the scene where the two girls are negotiating their last bunch of wishes with the Psammead.

…if you told grown-ups I should have no peace of my life….they wouldn't wish silly things like you do, bur real, ernest things;…for a graduated income tax, and old age pensions, and manhood suffrage, and free secondary education, and dull things like that…

Always the advocate, and why not?

Nesbit wrote two sequels to Five Children and It: The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), and The Story of the Amulet (1906).

Five Children and It at

Gore Vidal, in a 1964 article for The New York Review of Books, wrote that Nesbit, like Lewis Carroll, wrote about children, but not for children, and I tend to agree with him. Neither Nesbit nor Carroll display the slightest amount of sentimentality regarding young humans, and that is probably why both were able to create such realistic ones as populated their books, as opposed the the idealized little innocents that pranced and simpered and spouted treacly homilies through the pages of children's books in the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries.

Nesbit's biographer, Julia Briggs, called Nesbit the first modern writer for children, and the  inventor of the children's adventure story. Nesbit also excelled at what we today call magical realism, stories with contemporary settings and realistic characters where a magical element is introduced and must be dealt with in a believable manner. Her fantasy worlds always adhered to an internal logic that assured believability on the part of the reader, there were no deus ex machina bailouts in any of Nesbit's worlds.

All in all, Nesbit wrote about forty books and story collections for children, and eleven novels, four story collections, poetry collections and numerous short stories for adults, all in addition to the writing she produced supporting socialist causes. Numerous writers have told of the influence Nesbit had on their writing, including Edward Eager, Diana Wynn-Jones, C.S. Lewis and J.K Rowling.

Bland died in 1914 after suffering a heart attack, and in 1917 Nesbit married Tommy Tucker, a ship's engineer on the Woolwich ferry.  Nesbit died of lung cancer at her home on the fourth of May, 1924.

Books by Edith Nesbit available at no cost at Project Gutenberg.

Audiobooks by E. Nesbit available at no cost at LibriVox.

The Edith Nesbit Society website.

Edith Nesbit at the Literature-Network.