Monday, August 17, 2015

The Scenery May Change, but the Characters Remains the Same.

Dorrie the Little Witch Returns a Childhood Favor for Author Patricia Coombs

Patricia Coombs lived in five different places before the age of four: Los Angeles, Hawaii, San Francisco, Boston and New York City. Patricia's father, an operations manager for Shell Oil, was a corporation man and moved whenever and wherever the corporation decreed.

From New York, it was on to Saint Louis during the heart of the Depression, then Chicago, and then just as the war broke out, to a huge seven bedroom house in Daytona Beach, Florida, where Coombs graduated high school, one of a class of fifty.

Coombs had an older brother and sister, but the age gap was large. Her brother was eight years older than she, and her sister was ten years older, and wed early. Coombs childhood was more that of an only child, and her way of coping with the multiple moves was reading.  Unfortunately, her mother had a phobia about germs, and was convinced that library books were virtual hotbeds of infections.  

Coombs read anything and everything that she could get her hands on, and was particularly fond of the series books by Lucy Fitch Perkins, not just the stories, but the detailed line drawings serving as illustrations. These series books gave Coombs a sense of security through all the moves, a continuity lacking with her own family.

Resisting her parent's attempts to marry her off to a suitor of suitable economic class by sending her to an appropriate college, Coombs studied art and literature, eventually earning her undergraduate degree from the University of Washington.  There she met and married C. Jim Fox when they both worked part-time at Boeing.  The G.I Bill and various jobs supported the pair through homes in the East Village, Minnesota, and Connecticut.  

It was after her two daughters were born and nursing her father back to health that Coombs took up writing and illustrating again. Encouraged by the author and her neighbor Noel Gerson and the writer Roswell G. Ham, Jr., Coombs sent her first manuscript, Dorrie's Magic, off to an agent, who sold it to Lathrop, and released it for publication in 1962. Nineteen more Dorrie books were to follow, as well as several stand-alones.  Coombs also illustrated several books written by another authors.

Coombs claimed that she never successfully learned to draw legs.  When she was casting about for ideas, she focused on the stories that she told her children when they were little, stories full of witches, ghosts and goblins.  Coombs took those stories and used them as the basis for Dorrie.  Always fascinated by witches herself, Coombs also wanted her stories to have a timeless look, and not become dated by the changes of fashion.  Stories about witches in traditional garb did the trick, and those long black gowns and stockings kept her from every having to draw a pair of legs.

Book #30:  Dorrie and the Fortune Teller (1973) by Patricia Coombs, illustrated by Patricia Coombs. 43 pages.

All the Dorrie books share the same beginning:

This is Dorrie. She is a witch. A little witch. Her hat is always on crooked and her socks never match.  Dorrie lives in Witchville with her black cat Gink, and her mother, the Big Witch, and Cook.

For weeks, the witches and wizards of Witchville had been trying to raise enough money to buy their meadow and the Town Tower they currently rented from the Wizard Floog.  If they couldn't raise the money, Floog said that her would turn the two into a Tar And Cigar Factory.

Dorrie wants to help, but she is just a little witch and her mother says that she and her constant companion Gink will just be in the way.

Earlier that morning, Dorrie, looking out her bedroom window, spies white posters nailed on the trees and fence. She runs down to get one. The posters are for Madame Zee, a famous fortune teller.  She shows her mother the poster. Her mother is convinced that Madame Zee, who has a reputation for being kind and generous, will be able to help them by reading the future, and flies off on her broom to tell the other witches in town.

Dorrie, per her mother's direction, takes Gink and visits the houses of some local witches and warlocks and tells them of Madame Zee's arrival. In the woods, she spots a strange looking wagon and a grey horse grazing nearby.  Dorrie goes up to investigate, but is chases away by an angry witch who tells her to GET OUT!

Dorrie runs home, and discovers that she has lost her hat. Her mother says she can't wait for her, and leaves for town and Madame Zee.  Dorrie goes back to the wagon and finds her hat, but she also discovers a strange looking object, similar to a telescope, that reads on its side Madame Zee's Treasure Detector.  Dorrie looks through the lens, and sees a treasure chest, buried underneath the Tower.

She goes into town and tells her mother what she saw, but her mother, as parents so often do, fail to believe her.  Dorrie then sees Madame Zee telling everyone the same fortune, that Witchville was about to experience a terrible earthquake and that everyone must get out of town immediately.

Dorrie decides that since none believes her, the only course of action is to dig up the treasure chest herself. When she goes to the basement, she discovers Wizard Floog stuck in the coal chute.  Dorrie promises to help him but he must also help her. Floog agrees and Dorrie cuts him mostly free with a pair of tin snips. They dig out the treasure chest, confront Madame Zee, and pursue her as she tries to escape.

Big Witch grabs Madame Zee, who everyone now recognizes as an impostor, and demands to know the location of the real Madame Zee, who was trapped in a chest in the wagon all along.  The fake Madame Zee then escapes, but no one really cares.  The Tower and meadow is safe, and Madame Zee says that they all have Dorrie to thank, because she was the only one who saw what was happening, which is always better than seeing what my happen.

Dorrie and the Fortune Teller at

Dorrie and the Fortune Teller is written in a straightforward manner with a vocabulary that is understandable for the younger grades. There is no whimsey or humor in the telling, more of a sense of "getting the job done."

The illustrations, on the other hand, are incredible. All the influence of those line drawings Coombs so admired in her childhood are evident in full-force here. The writing is pedestrian, but a child (or adult) could spend considerable time and pleasure taking in all of the details in these wonderful illustrations, which do contain considerable whimsey.

Aside from parents aghast at the thought of their innocent children being cruelly exposed to the Black Arts by way of a children's book, these books are worth a read for everyone just on the basis of the illustrations alone.

Unfortunately, all of the Dorrie books are out of print, but several of them are available through print-on-demand.  Information about this, as well as more information on the Dorrie series can be accessed at   the Dorrie the Little Witch website, maintained by Dorrie Sacksteder.

Patricia Coombs was born in 1926 in Los Angeles, California. She currently spends most of her time in London, England.

Patricia Coombs holdings at the University of Minnesota libraries.


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