Forgotten books: Big Red

Safe in an armchair, contemplating Nature, red in tooth and claw…

I was raised in a community that considered hunting for food to be as natural as driving a car or tractor. I didn’t hunt, but I knew the basics of gun ownership. As a kid I even once qualified for the National Rifle Association’s basic marksmanship certificate (way back when the NRA was primarily a gun safety organization).

Big Red cover Similarly I never owned a dog in my youth, but I knew what it was like to be around dogs, to have them underfoot, and making noise, and nosing in the grass for something to eat and then roll in.

I don’t remember how I discovered Jim Kjelgaard, or which of his nearly 50 juvenile books I read first. Big Red is the one that sticks in my mind, although when I re-opened it for the first time since the 1960s, I didn’t remember much plot or character detail. What did surprise me was how quickly the book drew me into the adventure of a seventeen-year-old Danny Pickett and his champion Irish setter. Surprising, mostly because Big Red features the kind of stirring, archaic prose that might’ve inspired a young Teddy Roosevelt:

Line drawings, Shannon Stirnweis.

Any mongrel with four legs and the ability to run could hunt varmints. Danny looked fondly at the big setter. The first man who had dreamed had dreamed of a dog to hunt birds, and to make Red a varmint dog would almost be betrayal of that man and all the others who had striven to make the breed what it was.

What makes this potential fustiness go down so well is the homely speech of the outdoorsmen who live harmoniously in Kjelgaard’s imaginary wilderness:

Ross [Danny’s father] gulped, and then grinned. “Don’t even trouble your head about me. I’m no tenderfoot deer hunter, as has to git his game the first day or he don’t git it.”

The result is an adventure on the scale of Treasure Island or Captains Courageous.

Line drawings, Shannon Stirnweis.Like them, Big Red is firmly a chronicle of its time–earnest and epic.

Tellingly, the animals in Danny’s world are heavily anthropomorphized. Danny lives in a world were “monster bears” exhibit “customary cunning”:

The savage, silent, head-swinging bear still roamed the Wintapi, an implacable, hating enemy of all the humans who trod there.

Kjelgaard’s vivid images can stop a reader in his tracks with their precision: “A couple of crows cawed raucously from the top of a beech, and flew on the devil’s business that their kind are always about.”

Crows have their place, however, as does all life. The book presents class hierarchy as an unquestionable given. Danny calls the wolverine that raids his trapline an “Injun devil” with provincial thoughtlessness. And Danny and his father live “by the grace of Mr. Haggin” on the wild edge of their wealthy patron’s “carefully nurtured” estate.

Line drawings, Shannon Stirnweis.The book is unabashedly masculine. Its only female character is one of Mr. Haggin’s managers, a “quality woman” visiting from Philadelphia who commits the cardinal sin of valuing Red only as a decorative possession. The bulk of the remaining 200-plus pages focusses on the important manly concerns of trackin’, trappin’, skinnin’, shootin’, fightin’, and rustlin’ up some hearty grub.

Yet for all the shortcomings of its age, Big Red is still worth reading.

Big Red is a detailed catalog of outdoor craft. Danny is an excellent woodsman, whether bleeding a dead bull (one of the bear’s victims) to preserve its meat for the landowner, or outwitting a bear on the run. Even the book’s exaggerated anthropomorphism is grounded in a detailed knowledge of animal behavior that makes its many descriptions pulse with life.

And a young reader could do a lot worse for a role model. Red’s journey from raw potential to disciplined perfection is the result of Danny’s fundamental kindness and unwavering vision.

Ross scoffed at the notion that a whipping would hurt him, but Danny knew better. Red had depths of feeling a sensitivity that he had seen in no other dog, and he was proud, He wouldn’t bear the lash any more than would a proud man.

Line drawings, Shannon Stirnweis.Danny’s trust pays off. In maturing, Red’s good nature blooms, as does his selfless courage in defending his beloved Danny from the mortal threats that lurk in the wilderness. Their united battle to defeat the marauding bear provides the ultimate measure of their partnership.

The best way to appreciate Danny Pickett as a protagonist it to compare him to his fictional contemporary, the far more well known Holden Caulfield. That famously cynical, rude, superficial, selfish, narcissistic twit is Danny’s antithesis.

In contrast, Danny embodies the highest traits of his species–smart, hard-working, uncomplaining, generous, and brave. The kind of honorable young man who deserves the hero worship of the noblest of dogs and the most jaded of contemporary readers.

Forgotten books: The Garden Under the Sea

On the shoreline, preparing to cross between pairs of worlds…

I don’t recall when I first heard the melody of “Sweet Molly Malone,” but I’m certain where I first read the lyrics:

She wheeled her wheelbarrow

Through streets broad and narrow

Crying, “Cockles and mussels

Alive, alive ho.”

The Garden Under the SeaThe tune comes to mind unbidden, often when I’m working outdoors, bringing with it a pleasant melancholy, the emotional residue of a book that I received from my parents when I was eight or nine. The Garden Under the Sea (by George Selden) might seem an unusual present for a child for whom the nearest seaport was Milwaukee, but considering its lasting influence, it represents gift-giving genius.

The premise of The Garden Under the Sea is simple: A contentious lobster named Oscar uses questionable means to fight an injustice. The basis of the conflict is the tendency of the humans who each year descend on the Long Island shore to decorate their cottage gardens by “Shell stealing, glass stealing, rock rearranging, and general ruining of the ocean floor.” Tired of losing debris that the neighborhood’s aquatic residents consider the sea’s rightful property, Oscar rallies them to retaliate. Thus begins a summer of beach blanket stealing, sandwich stealing, and general raiding of assorted treasures left unattended above the waterline.

The Garden Under the Sea is an unusual children’s book by contemporary standards. With its sophisticated language and genteel anthropomorphism, it follows the tradition of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, especially its seventh chapter, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” The moral guide of The Garden Under the Sea is a “wise old periwinkle,” who cites maritime traditions with Nor’eastern aplomb: “It ain’t what you salvage,” said the periwinkle sternly, “It’s how you salvage it. If you go at it with respect for what”s been wrecked, and pity for the people involved, that’s one thing. If you don’t, that’s anothah.”

The plotting that goes into building the underwater garden plot yields a plot that’s episodic rather than overarching. Still, the book’s recurring narrative tides memorably convey humans’ persistent inability to embrace their environment. Ultimately our efforts to comprehend and live in harmony with the world come up short, leaving us with “a great Awe.”

The next morning–not quite at six o’clock–Howard and Janet came down to move their meteorite. When they couldn’t find it, they called their mothers and fathers and they came down too. Soon the whole neighborhood was scouring the beach. One group held that the tide had washed it away; another said that shooting stars always evaporated after they hit the earth. But Howard and Janet didn’t believe either of these theories. It was a puzzle , and they admitted it. As a matter of fact, it was just one of several things that happened that summer on Crescent Beach which the human beings living there never did fully understand.

The Garden Under the Sea was published in 1957, three years before author George Selden‘s more well-known book The Cricket in Times Square. Perhaps overshadowed by that Cricket‘s Newbery Honor award, The Garden Under the Sea doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. Through its descriptions of storm and shipwreck, meteorite fall and fireworks, it shows how the the man-made and natural worlds parallel each other in confounding wonders whose power to enthrall remains forever alive, alive ho.

Eat, drink, and be merry, preschoolers, for tomorrow you die

Sometimes books raise questions. Sometimes books supply answers. A reader who pages through the picture book Mr. Reaper can be forgiven for asking: “Huh? What was the publisher thinking?” and arriving at the conclusion that allowing a popular and successful artist free rein is not always a good idea.

Mr. ReaperAt its most basic, Mr. Reaper tells the story of a wolf who sets out to nurse a sick piglet back to health so that the wolf can eat him. The ending implies that the sacrifices that the wolf makes for his patient transform them into the best of friends.

Unfortunately the bizarre decision to have Death narrate what should’ve been a simple and benign tale of empathy destroys whatever value and appeal it might have had. Instead of sweet and straightforward, the story is grim and garbled. Nearly every page shows Mr. Reaper spying on our characters while he repeatedly threatens them with imminent and capricious doom:

“The Reaper silently gazed at the two…In fact, you two will soon die.”

It’s not that death is an unsuitable subject for preschoolers. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center lists several books about grief and loss for children as young as three. Books such as Robie H. Harris’ Goodbye Mousie reassure children that death, while profoundly different from sleep, is just as natural.

What’s wrong with Mr. Reaper is its overriding sense of foreboding and hopelessness. The black book jacket, die-cut to suggest two watching eyes, sets the harsh tone right from the bookshelf. Even though the final spread shows the former predator dancing with his erstwhile prey in a meadow, the flower heads that surround the dancers reinforce the reader’s feeling of being watched by an inescapable bully. It’s a confused and unearned “happy ending” that’s insufficient to undo the damaging message of the rest of the pages.

Mr. Reaper is the work of graphic designer and writer Tatsuya Miyanishi, who his many Japanese, French, Chinese, and Korean readers surely revere. Mr. Reaper, published in Miyanishi’s native Japan in 2010, was his first work to be released in English (in this  charmless, dull, and unattributed 2012 translation). Given his obvious skill as an artist, one hopes that the dismal Mr. Reaper doesn’t kill Miyanishi’s chances with a U.S. audience.


Forgotten books: The Adventures of Duc of Indochina

Echoes of a distant childhood and a lost war everlasting…

From 1958 to 1963 I attended the parish school of the Saint Robert Bellarmine1 Catholic Church in Merrill, Wis. Although I forgot most of the experience, a few memories endured. One involved a book with a half-remembered title and a vague sense of nobility.

A half-remembered title and sense of nobility…

Why did I hang onto that particular mental scrap for so long? And why did it carry a positive association?

St. Bellarmine’s was a typical small town parish, oppressive in its alligence to dogma. My 7th- and 8th-grade years passed under the eye of a raptorial nun who called herself Constance. Sister Constance’s reputation as a disciplinarian remained more vivid than her ability as a teacher. That’s because her tool of choice was an 18-inch wooden ruler applied sharply to the palm of the hand, a device and a technique that our school’s namesake inquisitor would’ve sneered at.

This isn’t say that those years were without joy, in between paddlings. One routine that I remember fondly a half century later is this: Sister Constance reading to us as a class, daily I think, in a brief but welcome respite from her rigid schedule. Her book selection must’ve been mostly uninspired because later I could recall only a single title, and that imperfectly. But I still thought of it and kept searching from time to time…

Decades later, it surfaced: The Adventures of Duc of Indochina. And I had to re-read it.

I admit that I was wary of Duc and his adventures, having been disappointed by other re-enacted memories. I feared that the book would turn out to be a clumsy and superficial capitalist or missionary screed. (After all, Sister Constance had a job to do in an era not far removed from “adopting pagan babies” and applauding Sen. Joe McCarthy.)

But after reading it, I’ve been amazed by the book’s many qualities. The story concerns teenage Duc’s attempt to save his family from the civil war waging around them in what is now called Vietnam. Failing that, he begins a two-year quest to reunite what remains of his family. Through it all, Duc is loyal to family and community and faithful to his ideals, which include a harmonious relationship between his own Christianity and his neighbors’ mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.

Duc of Indochina is a well-researched, largely even-handed tale of innocent people destroyed by a political conflict they didn’t choose. The consequences of Duc’s loyalty to his village and its modest way of life, though unfair, are real and unavoidable. As Nevins puts it:

There were long rows of graves in the cemetery, and each tomb had a concrete slab giving the man’s name, his unit, and the date of death. There was one Vietnamese name after another, and under each name was the legend, “Mort pour la France” (Died for France).

“That is false,” Duc thought to himself. “Those men died for Vietnam, not for France! They did not die so that their children would be tenants in a house owned by a foreigner.”


The consequences, though unfair, are real and unavoidable.

Sure, author Albert J. Nevins dumps explanations into the narrative like overpacked duffel bags, but it’s usually only a paragraph or two at a time and, with at least one good fact per paragraph, that’s a good trade. Nevins also speaks with a formality that sometimes sounds corny to the modern ear, but is driven by his desire as a journalist to get the details right.

The Catholic clergy in the story are secondary figures, generally decent men with modest ambitions for themselves and their followers. The Vietminh rebels (precursors of the Viet Cong) come up for more criticism than their French-led opponents, the Vietnamese army. The former are cast as brutal, unempathetic ideologs while the latter “were spick-and-span, determined to show their fellow nationals that their army was capable of protecting the country and the people.” (Of course, President Diem2 taught us otherwise.

After excaping the Vietminh, Duc fights with the French at Dienbienphu. Their defeat there led to the surrender that ended France’s long occupation of the region. It also paved the way for the U.S. to step into that quagmire of death and destruction on its own. (Let us never forget how that turned out.)

Nevins, a Catholic priest, was not unbiased. He made his opposition to the Communist Vietminh clear, calling them “Red hordes.” But as a journalist, he respected his title character and came down squarely on the side of ordinary Vietnamese who wanted only to live their lives unmolested by political theory.

The Adventures of Duc of Indochina ends with the teenage Duc reuniting with the few family members and friends who survived, and fleeing with them to what became South Vietnam. Despite his personal suffering and loss, Duc remained undaunted as he looked forward.

“I see the blood and glory of a thousand yesterdays.”

“Can you see tomorrow?”

“No, Sap. That I cannot see.” Duc straightened up and put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “We must make tomorrow.”


Duc’s lost world.

So that’s what I retained all these years: This fictitious stranger’s optimism made all the more poignant by the knowledge of what happened to his Vietnam after his story ends. Sister Constance might’ve intended to inspire us with a tale of Catholic fortitude, but what I got out of it was something simpler. Upon reflection, given my experience of a wooden ruler compared to weapons of war, I had a renewed appreciation of my own good fortune.

1 Among other duties, Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) served Pope Clement VIII as a Cardinal Inquisitor. In that position, Bellarmine defended the faith against heretics up and including execution and helped persecute Galileo Galilei. We students were oblivious of this background. If we had known, of course, our budding adolescent sarcasm would surely have been merciless. Return

2 Nevins, writing in 1955, characterized South Vietnam’s first president, Ngo Dinh Diem, as “an honest Nationalist.” However, like Robert Bellarmine, Diem was not what he seemed. Also a Roman Catholic, the new president proved to be remarkably corrupt and went on to oppress followers of other religions, eventually making enough enemies to be deposed and assassinated. Return

Heard any good voices lately?

Readers finish books because they want to know what happened. Readers start books because they find the storyteller appealing. 

Most readers make the decision to proceed with a book within the first few pages, usually before the plot gets going. And what evidence do readers have to go on? Only the narrator’s voice, the trickiest element of storytelling.

Here’s my favorite example of a voice that demands attention:

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.

Charles Portis' True GritThe plot details in this opening paragraph of True Grit are incidental. More important is the fact that in these first two sentences author Charles Portis deftly conveys his narrator’s basic character–her morals, intelligence, and determination–and we fall in love with her at once. With the sound of Mattie Ross’ voice, we instantly commit to her tale. Her voice makes us believe, respect, and root for her. There is no way to turn away from her story after we hear her speak.

I believe creating a narrative voice that is credible and compelling is the writer’s single greatest challenge. Plot isn’t worth a damn unless we give a damn about the storyteller. The voice we hear on page one better be someone who sounds interesting. After all, he or she is asking to live inside our heads for a while.*

What is your favorite narrative voice–the one that sold you on his or her story from the very first sentence?

* By the way, the same point applies to nonfiction. Even some textbooks are more readable than others because of the writer’s voice.

Joseph Grand and the horse he rode in on

Joseph Grand is a character in The Plague, by Albert Camus, a slim but inspiring novel bounced from liberal arts reading lists by the ruthless obsolescence of relevance. The story takes place during an epidemic in 1940s Algeria. Grand is a civil servant, distinguished by his colorless fulfillment of duties and his obsession with writing a perfect novel, a work of art of such obvious quality that:

“On the day when the manuscript reaches the publisher, I want him to stand up— after he’s read it through, of course—and say to his staff: ‘Gentlemen, hats off!'”

Unfortunately, Grand can’t get past the first sentence. His ideals don’t allow him to move forward until the text is flawless. As he puts it:

“I grant you it’s easy enough to choose between a ‘but’ and an ‘and.’ It’s a bit more difficult to decide between ‘and’ and ‘then.’ But definitely the hardest thing may be to know whether one should put an ‘and’ or leave it out.”

At one point, Grand’s opening reads:

“One fine morning in May a slim young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.”

As soon as he solves one problem–the substitution of “slim” for “elegant” say–another crops up. It’s “handsome” this time, which he believes doesn’t paint a clear enough picture. He rejects “plump” as demeaning and vulgar. He discards “beautifully groomed” as awkward.

Then one evening he announced triumphantly that he had got it: “A black sorrel mare.” To his thinking, he explained, “black” conveyed a hint of elegance and opulence.

“It won’t do,” Rieux said.

“Why not?”

“Because ‘sorrel’ doesn’t mean a breed of horse; it’s a color.”

“What color?”

“Well—er—a color that, anyhow, isn’t black.”

Grand seemed greatly troubled. “Thank you,” he said warmly. “How fortunate you’re here to help me! But you see how difficult it is.”

Well said, my muse. Only you would understand how many times I previewed this post before publishing.

A wish for Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People, by Monica Brown, is a picture book of obvious merit. The book (illustrated by Julie Paschkis, Henry Holt and Company, ISBN 978-0805091984) won a 2012 Américas Award, which is given to works that “authentically and engagingly portray Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the United States”.

Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People is beautifully written and illustrated, yet I feel that it’s missing something. Paschkis’s illustrations incorporate English and Spanish words into the scenery surrounding Neruda’s figure as Brown’s text describes how he grew up to become a world-renowned poet.

Unfortunately, by the end of the book, Paschkis’s technique seems to tease as much as celebrate. For despite Ms. Brown’s evocative account of Neruda’s personal and professional life, which details what Neruda wrote about, the text includes no examples of Neruda’s poetry.

(An afterword directs readers to several resources, where those who are motivated can track down and read his poems on their own. This would be welcome supplemental information. It’s no substitute for examples of the poetry that the text so lavishly praises, however.)

This is a missed opportunity and a drawback to an otherwise excellent book for young children. For example, when Brown describes Neruda’s mastery of language and sensual observation:

Pablo wrote poems about the things he loved–things made by his artist friends, things found at the marketplace, and things he saw in nature.

Including the final lines of a poem such as “Ode To The Artichoke” would’ve enriched her point:

With her basket
She chooses
An artichoke,
She’s not afraid of it.
She examines it, she observes it
Up against the light like it was an egg,
She buys it,
She mixes it up
In her handbag
With a pair of shoes
With a cabbage head and a
Of vinegar
She enters the kitchen
And submerges it in a pot.

Thus ends
In peace
This career
Of the armed vegetable
Which is called an artichoke,
Scale by scale,
We strip off
The delicacy
And eat
The peaceful mush
Of its green heart.

Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People certainly presents to children who are beginning to explore poetry a wonderful portrait of a lyrical genius. I just wish that the book had made it easier to appreciate his genius in action.