Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Hawthorne White

Tanglewood Tales
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Recommended Ages: 11+

You may have heard of the Tanglewood Music Festival in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. This festival is named after the mansion where the festival is held. The mansion was named after the nearby cottage where Nathaniel Hawthorne stayed while writing this book. And the cottage, according to my sources, was named after this book—a sequel to the same author's A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys. Houston, Texas, has a neighborhood named after this book, and the state of Washington has an island ditto. These facts illustrate the love in which this book was once popularly held, and the influence of some of the people who loved it so.

And yet I would bet you're hearing about this book for the first time now. Here some writers would say, "So goes the world," and let it be. But I say it need not be so. Nathaniel Hawthorne is too important a figure in American literature to be allowed to remain only a figure, silhouetted against the dying light of a bygone age. His writing really is enjoyable, and some of it was designed for the enjoyment of kids. And even though kids' tastes may change, there still remains a good deal of charm and appeal in Hawthorne's retellings of the world's most timeless tales.

One thing you will appreciate about this book, if you come to it after reading Hawthorne's Wonder-Book, is that he dispenses with the precious little introductions to each story featuring college-boy Eustace Bright and his brood of smaller siblings and cousins. A preface to this book informs us that Eustace is still interested in adapting tales of the ancient heroes to the sensibilities of the children of his time. These stories, then, are further examples of how Eustace would tell such swashbuckling legends as...
  • "The Minotaur"—in which Theseus tests his strength against a man-eating beast with the head of a bull and the body of a man;
  • "The Pygmies"—in which Hercules grapples with a giant whose strength doubles every time he touches the ground;
  • "The Dragon's Teeth"—in which Cadmus slays a dragon, sows its teeth in the ground, and grows a crop of warriors to found the city of Thebes;
  • "Circe's Palace"—in which Odysseus, a.k.a. Ulysses, saves his ship's crew from a wily enchantress;
  • "The Pomegranate Seed"—in which the grain goddess's daughter is taken captive by the lord of the underworld; and
  • "The Golden Fleece"—in which Jason leads a pre-League of Justice force of fifty Greek heroes against a series of dangerous creatures.
These adventures also feature a giant clockwork man, a couple of fire-breathing bulls, winged menaces, humans transformed into beasts, and an army of Lilliputian warriors who send one of the greatest heroes in retreat.

Hawthorne's retelling of these tales may not be my favorite version. Sometimes his pacing slackens, and then again the ending is quite abrupt. What he leaves out of this child's album of adventures, however, may leave them hungering for more. This might, in fact, be a "gateway book," leading youngsters to study the stories of the Greek gods and heroes in more depth. With a light touch, a streak of gentle silliness, and a worldly-wise skepticism about the magic that fills his own stories, Hawthorne's version may indeed be just the right story-album to give an inquisitive youngster his or her first taste of the classic myths and tall tales. Growing children may forget where they heard or read these stories first. But I am sure it will make a difference if they start with a storyteller of the top grain.

The Search for Belle Prater
by Ruth White
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this companion to Belle Prater's Boy, Gypsy and her cousin Woodrow do a little more growing-up in the small town of Coal Station, Virginia. It's still the 1950s, when families like Gypsy's are just getting their first TV set and, by running a wire up to a mountaintop antenna, they can pick up all of two networks. Black people are still (inexplicably) described as colored folks, barred from entering many businesses, and required to sit at the back of the bus. And more than anything else—even more than having the operation to straighten his crossed eyes—Woodrow wants to find out what became of his mother, the Belle Prater of the title, who disappeared one night and left him alone with his hard-drinking, good-for-nothing father.

Woodrow now lives next door to Gypsy with their grandparents. The two cousins are approaching high school age, and are beginning to take more adult responsibility. So when a mysterious phone call comes on New Year's Eve—which happens to be Woodrow's birthday—it seems inevitable that the two cousins will investigate it... even if it means riding a bus by themselves to a West Virginia town sixty miles away and exploring the unknown, outside world without adult supervision. It has to be done, if only to find the tiniest clue to what became of Belle Prater.

There are some tense and even eerie moments during Woodrow and Gypsy's investigation; moments when their friendship feels strained; and period when Woodrow trades his usual high spirits for a depressed outlook that is normally unlike him. Besides their own search for clues in Bluefield, W.V., the pair also helps a motherless black boy find the loving family he never knew he had. They visit the scene of Belle's disappearance with a school friend who claims to have the sixth sense. And they make a strange discovery that will leave them, and perhaps you as well, wondering whether this is a simple coming-of-age story or a chilling tale of the paranormal.

But mostly it's a touching example of the former, packed with salt-of-the-earth characters from the heyday and home region of bluegrass music. Not only the characters but at times even the narrator speak in a soft, backwoodsy dialect that may raise your English teacher's disapproving eyebrow. The lead characters go right to your heart with their honesty, kindness, joke-telling sense of fun. Unique family customs, old-school social manners, and common-sense ways of getting by in a world without much of today's flashy technology, add their respective layers of interest to what is basically a story about learning to accept and live with the unfairness and sadness in life—without losing hold of its joys.

Ruth White has been writing books since the 1970s, but it's only since the turn of this century that she has really warmed up to it. Her titles, suggesting a special focus on childhood in the "mid-south" region of the U.S., include: Sweet Creek Holler; Tadpole; Buttermilk Hill; Way Down Deep; and A Month of Sundays. Visit Fantastic Fiction for more details.

No comments: