Saturday, July 25, 2009

Four Slim Books

Julie of the Wolves
by Jean Craighead George
Recommended Ages: 10+

Her English name is Julie Edwards. Her Eskimo name is Miyax. She was brought up in the traditional ways of an Eskimo hunting camp. She was uprooted at age nine and sent to an English-speaking school. She was married at thirteen to a dull-witted boy in the city of Barrow at the northern tip of Alaska. And now she has run away, hoping to catch a boat from Point Hope to San Francisco, where her pen-pal lives.

But Miyax soon finds herself lost in the Arctic wilderness. Lost and starving. Her traditional upbringing on an island in southwestern Alaska did not fully prepare her for survival inland, north of the Artic Circle. When we first meet Miyax, she has already pinned her hopes to a pack of wolves. If she can get them to accept her as a member of the pack, she may survive.

As Miyax falls in love with a wolf puppy named Kapu, you will fall in love too. As she weathers the long winter night, you will shiver with her. As she faces the menace of a lone wolf, you will feel her tension. The beauty of a life eked out of one of the harshest environments on earth will reveal itself to you. The tragedy of such a way of life becoming a lost art form will move your heart. In language at one time rich and simple, naturalist and Jean Craighead George - author of many pieces of environmental fiction - will captivate your imagination.

Except perhaps for its confusing and slightly disappointing ending, I was completely convinced by this winner of the 1973 Newbery Medal. The book is as old as I am, but it speaks to themes that are on people's minds today. And the unfulfilling ending may result from the fact fact that this is the first book in a trilogy, continuing with Julie and Julie's Wolf Pack.

The Story of Doctor Dolittle
by Hugh Lofting
Recommended Ages: 10+

In 1923 the sequel to this book, titled The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, became only the second book to win a Newbery Medal. Several more books about the amazing doctor from Puddleby-on-the-Marsh followed, some even being published after their author's death in 1947. But it is this book, published in 1920, that I remember reading when I was ten or eleven years old. Its wry humor, its theme of respect for all living things, and its Oz-like fantasy of an absent-minded country doctor who learns to talk with the animals, were a delight to me then and, perhaps, a major influence in my life since then.

Lofting was a British native who married an American woman and settled down in the U.S. to start a family. During World War I, he conceived the Doctor Dolittle stories while writing to his children from the trenches. Later he revisited those letter-stories and published them, beginning with this book.

This is the one where Doctor Dolittle learns to understand the language of the animals. Befriended by a dog, a duck, an owl, a parrot, a crocodile, and a baby pig, he struggles to make a living as a regular country doctor, then as an animal doctor. His fortune is finally made when the monkeys of Africa send word, begging him to come and help them through a great sickness. From then on his life is one adventure after another, from a shipwreck to encounters with a silly king and an even sillier prince, from the discovery of the only two-headed animal in the world (the unforgettable pushmi-pullyu) to a chase with pirates and a rescue on the high seas.

The current HarperCollins/Books of Wonder edition of this book includes an informative foreword and afterword, and has been gently edited by Patricia and Frederick McKissack. Their aim was to remove racially offensive expressions, and to alter one incident that wouldn't play well in today's world, with as little change to Lofting's words and style as possible. I'm not altogether convinced that their changes were effective. The incident of the black prince who wanted to be white doesn't quite work when it's changed to a prince wanting to be a lion. Logically, psychologically, something is missing. But this is a small trade-off for making a classic of children's literature acceptable for another generation.

A Single Shard
by Linda Sue Park
Recommended Ages: 10+

The 2002 winner of the Newbery Medal takes us back to medieval Korea, where a crippled man and an orphaned boy live together under a bridge in the potters' village of Ch'ulp'o. Young Tree-ear pauses from scrounging food from other people's garbage to watch the master potter Min throw a lump of clay on his wheel and shape it into a graceful urn.

When Tree-ear breaks a piece of pottery, he begs to be allowed to pay for it by working for Min. The backbreaking labor includes chopping and hauling cartloads of wood to burn in the kiln, cutting clay out of the ground, and draining it over and over until it is silky smooth. Without ever being allowed to throw a pot himself, Tree-ear learns what he can about working the clay, appreciating graceful proportions, incising designs, and glazing pottery with the region's rare and highly-prized celadon green.

Then a royal emissary comes to town, looking for a potter deserving of a government commission. Min's hopes are pinned to a few samples of his work, because he is careful and exacting and achieves excellence slowly. His chief competitor is an inferior artist who, however, has developed an innovative technique of inlay work, using different colors of glaze to create interersting surface details. When Min is unable to show Emissary Kim anything of that kind, Kim invites him to send him a sample of such work when he is ready. And Tree-ear volunteers to carry his master's work, on foot, to the royal court in Songdo.

Tree-ear's journey is heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. His devotion to the artistic purity practiced by his master, his friendship with the lame Crane-man, the struggle in his conscience when he learns a trade secret, and his hopes of being treated as a real apprentice at a time when the art of pottery was passed from father to son, fill this story with passion, beauty, tension, and the ache of longing. It is a wonderful way to learn about a corner of world history and culture many of us may not have known. It is, more importantly, a lovely story.

Shadow of a Bull
by Maia Wojciechowska
Recommended Age: 10+

The 1965 Newbery Medal went to this very deserving book about a youngster in Spain who is being groomed to fight a bull. Everyone in the Andalusian town of Arcangel knows that Manolo will soon be ready to follow in the footsteps of his father: the late, great matador Juan Olivar.

Only Manolo isn't sure. He fears the danger, the oh-so-deadly danger of facing a thousand pounds of angry bull, complete with horns. Almost more than being wounded or killed, he dreads having to kill the animal. And most of all, he is afraid of his own cowardice. He is afraid that, by being unable to stand his ground before a charging bull, he will bring shame to his mother, to his town, and to the six aficionados who have taken him under their wing.

As time presses on toward Manolo's date with his first bull, the suspense in this story builds to almost unbelievable levels. I wept over the boy's four-paragraph prayer to La Macarena, the patron saint of bullfighters, the night before his fated appointment with beef on the hoof. The outcome could be tragic. Or it could be the kind of story where the kid finds it in himself to be a great matador after all. But what it actually is, is more interesting.

If someone were to write a book about bullfighting today, it would probably be a very judgmental book, condemning an institution that combined cruelty to animals with a reckless attitude toward human life. Or perhaps it would be a damning indictment of machismo in its most extreme form. But in 1965 it was still possible to look on this sport, this art form, this demonstration of skill and grace and courage, and appreciate its meaning and its beauty - while also counting its cost. Anyone who reads this book will come away indebted to its author for her balanced, unjudgmental approach, for educating us about a complex and captivating subject, and for bringing a dying culture so vividly to life once more. If such a beautiful story could take place in it, the world of the bullfight is worth getting to know.

1 comment:

Robbie F. said...

I just looked up Maia W.'s 2002 obituary in the New York Times. What an amazing life! She actually killed a bull in a ring! Author, tennis pro, private detective, publisher, publicist, and Radio Free Europe translator... Wow!