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.

Why I read the daily newspaper comics

When I was a kid, we called them “the funny pages” whether they were or not. I still read them daily, although I’m starting to skip some, especially when my grandson and I curl up with “the funnies” together. You try explaining Dr. Morgan to a three-year-old–it’s beyond my abilities.

Why bother with the daily comics any more? I know they’re a ridiculous waste of time, but sublime moments like the one below make it all worthwhile. Too bad that Roy Lichtenstein couldn’t see this panel.


Background: This is part of the current storyline about spousal abuse, the less common kind. Despite being a year older than I am, Rex Morgan is still pushing the envelope.

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.

Faithful to the book

When two-year-old O finds a tricycle in his grandparents’ garage, he first puts on Grammy’s helmet before trying to ride.

Each time we play Driving the Car, O fastens his imaginary seatbelt.

O and his book

Photo © 2012 Cassandra May.

Between bouts of activity, O is likely to sit down with a book.

O is a modern child, growing up in a fully electronic household. His parents’ primary sources of news and information are Internet devices. O has long known how to unlock a phone or an iPad, and he loves, loves, loves pushing buttons. But just as O associates helmets with bicycles and seatbelts with cars, he connects books with relaxation.

O expects someone to read a book to him before his afternoon nap and again at bedtime. In between, he’ll ask for storytime whenever he’s in the mood. Sometimes he wants to be read to, sometimes he wants to explore pages on his own. In any case, books have become the linguistic equivalent of comfort food for him.

Because of the positive associations his parents set up, O doesn’t question the value of books any more than he questions the value of bicycle helmets or a seatbelts. All of them provide refuge from the uncertainties of a busy, stressful world. Because of the connections he’s making today, he’ll always travel safely, and he’ll always want to curl up with a book.


What’s your child’s storytime preference–paper or glass?

Perhaps you heard about the recent report that parents and children both prefer books on paper to e-books when reading together. I suspect that if you’re above a certain age, you found this news to be an encouraging reaffirmation of your values, otherwise known as curmudgeon-hood.

Conventional (read “elderly”) wisdom has it that paper is a more “warm and nurturing” medium than an electronic device. I agree, at least for the time being.

The key phrase above is “reading together.” What is warm and nurturing about reading together is the physical contact between parent and child. At present paper books lend themselves to better contact because they give readers a qualitatively different physical experience–a distinctly three-dimensional experience. Think of what’s involved in turning a paper page:

The Poky Little Puppy

1. Grasp the right-hand page, usually at the corner, by separating the top sheet from those underneath.

2. Life the page and carry it to the left;

3. Drop the page and smoothe it.

Can a child do this easily? Some can, some can’t, especially the very young. (That’s why “board books” were invented.)

Poky on screen

Now compare that with what’s involved in “turning” an electronic “page:”

1. Swipe the screen or press a button. That’s it.

Can a child do this easily? Probably. So in terms of ease of use, the electronic book wins “hands down.” But in terms of physical interaction, paper provides the reader with sensations on more than one level.

Electronic pages feel the same to your touch whether they’re displaying War and Peace or The Poky Little Puppy. In tactile variety, paper is the clear winner. Different paper books have different size pages, using paper of different weights and degrees of opacity. And who has not noticed and enjoyed a “new book smell?” As a result, a paper page turns with more fanfare and tactile feedback than an electronic page. So much so that learning the skill of paper-turning can give a young child a sense of accomplishment, an added positive association.

Of course, the relative advantages of the two media will likely change as technology improves. Already e-books provide color, a major shortcoming of early devices, and full-blown Search features. But I’d say the jury is still out on the hyperlinks that e-books make possible. Although they have the potential to enrich text, hyperlinks can also distract viewers with games and activities of dubious value. As a result, e-books are just as likely to detract from a good story as to make it better.

The complex positive associations that many of today’s parents have with the books of their youth prejudice them in favor of paper. The above study also found that 60% of parents prefer that their children read from paper rather than glass.

But who knows? Twenty years from now when today’s children, who are more familiar and comfortable with technology of all kinds, become parents, they might prefer e-books. And then the definition of “warm and nurturing” will change, despite what the old folks think.

Until then, though, let your child be your active reading partner. Together enjoy the feeling of lifting each page to see what that precocious puppy is going to do next.

Paper or glass? What’s your preference for your own reading? For reading with your child?