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.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! I'm going to have to find Honk the Moose. Looks like I missed a good one.