Review 2096: The Raven’s Children

I thought Yulia Yakovleva’s Punishment of a Hunter was an excellent 1930’s-era Russian mystery, so I looked for more. But all I could find was The Raven’s Children, a children’s book.

In Stalinist Soviet Union, seven-year-old Shura lives with his older sister Tanya, his baby brother Bobka, and his parents. All of them are patriots, but one night his father disappears. The next day, their mother behaves oddly, packing a suitcase, saying she quit her job, but she doesn’t tell them anything. The family unusually has a two-room apartment with Shura and Tanya’s bedroom accessed by a wardrobe so the second room is not obvious. That night Shura is awakened to see someone being taken away in a black car. The next morning, their mother and Bobka are gone, and Shura overhears a neighbor saying that they were taken away by the Black Raven. Their neighbors won’t speak to them except the timid old lady down the hall, who gives them a purse of money from their mother with instructions to go to their aunt.

Neither child wants to go to the aunt, so they spend the day wandering around talking to the birds (who talk back), trying to find the Black Raven. Gradually, they understand that their parents are thought to be spies and traitors. They think there must be some mistake and if they find the Black Raven they can tell him so. Then when they arrive home at their apartment that night, they find their neighbor living in it.

I always go under an assumption that the age of the protagonist in a children’s book is roughly the age of its intended audience. That being said, I think that children that age would understand very little of this book and be terrified by some of it. And I’m not a person who thinks children shouldn’t be scared by books.

For one thing, Yakovleva slowly brings in an element of magical realism. The talking animals and even Shura becoming invisible and having people walk through him was okay. But Yakovleva makes metaphors become real, so ears and eyes appearing in the walls are really creepy. But the worms are the worst. And I don’t want to spoil anything, but some characters, once disappeared, stay disappeared.

Yakovleva wrote this novel because her grandfather had similar experiences as a child during Stalin’s Reign of Terror. This novel might work as a teaching tool, but I would advise it to be with discussions with an adult who has read up on the period. Otherwise, I don’t think children are going to understand this novel.

By the way, several adult Goodreads readers complained that they didn’t understand what was going on, and at least one of them said she was from a former Soviet country.

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Review 2060: Moominsummer Madness

I intended to read Moominsummer Madness for the 1954 Club last spring, but it didn’t arrive from the library in time. So, I read it when it did arrive.

The Moomin family are on holiday when a huge tidal wave floods the valley. Their house gets flooded and they end up taking refuge on what they think is a floating house but is actually a theater.

Moomintroll and his friend Snork Maiden are separated from the others when they camp out for the night in a tree and the theater is cut loose. And Little My also gets lost when she falls through a trap door.

I usually try to review children’s books in terms of how attractive they might be to both kids and adults. Kids like books with lots of silliness, which is probably why these books are so popular. They don’t have much internal logic, though. I thought the book was only slightly interesting.

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Review 1835: Kidnapped

His mother long dead and his father recently having passed away, young David Balfour is ready to set out to seek his fortune. But family friend Reverend Campbell gives him a letter from his father to take to an Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws near Edinburgh. David hopes that if he has a wealthy relative, the man will help him to a career.

When David arrives at Shaws, he finds it incomplete, almost a ruin, and Ebenezer Balfour to be unwelcoming. He is David’s uncle, but right away he sends David up a ruined staircase almost to his death. Then, once his uncle has agreed to go with David to a lawyer, Mr. Rankiller, to discuss David’s inheritance, he has David kidnapped by an unscrupulous sea captain, who is supposed to take him to work as a white slave on a plantation.

North of Scotland, the ship David is on runs over a small boat in a storm, and the only survivor of the boat is Alan Breck Stewart, a Highland Jacobite who has been collecting money for his exiled chief. He has saved his belt full of gold, but David overhears the ship’s officers planning to kill the man for his money. David alerts Stewart, and the two hold off the crew in the roundhouse, ending with a much-depleted crew. Ultimately, this results in a shipwreck.

Beached in the far northwestern Highlands, David and Alan must avoid capture by the English army while they journey to Edinburgh to reclaim David’s inheritance and find Alan another ship for France.

This novel was my favorite Stevenson book as a child, so I was curious how I would view it now. I enjoyed it very much. David and Alan are interesting contrasting characters, and the novel gives a good idea of living in the Highlands in 1751. It’s full of adventure, too, a fun read.

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Review 1815: The Black Arrow

I occasionally collect children’s books, mostly those with good illustrations, and a few months ago I started thinking about the books that used to be readily available, all adventure stories by various authors but illustrated by N. C. Wyeth. I decided to look for some of those, and the ones I bought were both by Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped (my personal favorite) and one I’d never read, The Black Arrow.

Young Dick Shelton has lived under the wardship of Sir Daniel Brackley for most of his life and is loyal to him even though he seems to switch sides in the Wars of the Roses rather frequently. But mysterious attacks against his men by a group calling themselves the Black Arrow begin to awaken Dick to feelings of just resentment against Sir Daniel. For he has used the war and his position to cheat people out of their property.

Dick is on his way from Sir Daniel’s encampment when he encounters a boy named Jack Matcham whom he met in the camp. The boy (who everyone but Dick can see is really a girl) asks Dick for his help to get to Holywood. Dick helps Jack, but they fall back into Sir Daniel’s hands. Once there, Dick begins asking about the death of his father, for he has heard rumors that Sir Daniel was responsible.

This is an entertaining adventure story, and I’m not sure why it isn’t as highly regarded as Treasure Island (which has never been one of my favorites). The only thing I can think of to make it not as popular is the archaic speech Stevenson uses, which, while probably not that authentic, did not strike me as inauthentic, if that makes any sense. The novel features plenty of action, some appealing characters and some villains, and Richard of Gloucester (eventually to become Richard III) even makes an appearance as a young man.

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Review 1762: The Christmas Wish

Last year, I saw pictures from The Christmas Wish on TV and thought they were so beautiful that I bought a copy of the book. This little children’s story is illustrated with photos, some of which have been doctored to create the effects. This book is written by Lori Evert, and the photography is by Per Breiehagen.

Anja is a little girl who wants to be Santa’s helper for Christmas. So, after doing her chores and helping out a neighbor, she puts on her skis and heads north. On the way, she is helped by a cardinal, a draft horse, a musk ox, a polar bear, and a reindeer, each giving way to the next as she goes farther north.

The little girl is dressed in a traditional Norwegian outfit, and the photos are just wonderful. The story is simple but sweet. This is a book that could be passed down as a family heirloom.

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Review 1740: Premlata and the Festival of Lights

Premlata and the Festival of Lights is the first children’s book I’ve read in my mission to read all of Rumer Godden’s India novels.

Since seven-year-old Premlata’s Bapi died, her family is very poor. With all the village families preparing for Diwali, Premlata is shocked to find out that her mother has had to sell all their deepas, the little oil lamps that families put around their houses to help the goddess Kali battle the demons of darkness.

Premlata’s mother sends her up to the Big House to deliver some sweets to the housekeeper. While she is there, she goes to visit her friend Rajah the elephant and finds him being painted beautiful colors for the festival procession. This reminds her of the problem of the deepas, and she begins crying in front of Bijoy Rai, the kind owner of the Big House. Once she explains that her house will be the only dark one in the village for Diwali, Bijoy Rai gives her some money for her mother to buy deepas.

Premlata has a better idea, though. She will go to the town, three miles away, see Rajah in the procession, and buy the deepas herself.

This is a charming chapter book for children who are old enough to read. It introduces them to another culture and is a gentle story about good intentions gone slightly amiss. It includes a realistic adventure with elements of danger. I don’t know how easy it would be to find a copy, but I recommend it.

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Review 1661: I Go by Sea, I Go by Land

When I made up my current Classics Club list, I reflected that I had never read a book by P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books. So, I picked this one.

Sabrina is eleven years old when World War II begins worrying her parents. When a bomb comes close to their house in Sussex, her parents decide to send Sabrina and her younger brother James to America to stay with Aunt Harriet.

Sabrina keeps a diary, so she records her thoughts, badly spelled, on their journey by ship to Canada and by plane to New York, and then of their life in the United States. Along with them travels their parents’ friend Pel, a famous writer, and her baby Romulus.

This novel is funny and charming and ultimately touching, as the children experience new things, are homesick, and worry about the situation at home. It does have some slight political incorrectness, given that it was written in 1941. However, I liked it very much.

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Review 1657: The Wouldbegoods

In my return to my project of reading the collected works of E. Nesbit, among others, I realized I had forgotten how charming and funny her first Bastable novel, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, was. The Wouldbegoods is the second entry in the Bastable series.

The Bastable children have a habit of unwittingly causing havoc, and after a disastrous attempt to make a jungle while acting The Jungle Book, the children and their guests, Danny and Daisy, are shipped off to the country to stay with the uncle of Albert (referred to as Albert-next-door in The Treasure Seekers). Albert’s uncle is a writer usually installed in his study, which gives the children lots of unsupervised scope to get into trouble. So, they decide to form a society called the Wouldbegoods to try to be good. Of course, their attempts all go sadly awry.

Their decision to hand out free lemonade to passersby results in a fight with some unruly men and boys. Giving a tramp some coins ends up with them being trapped at the top of a tower. All their attempts at play go out of control, such as when they create a zoo in the paddock and the dogs chase the sheep into a stream.

One of the biggest charms of this novel as well as its predecessor is the “anonymous” narration by Oswald, who has obviously read a lot of florid literature. I think this series is funny for children but even funnier for adults, because the children have a naïve way of believing legends or taking things literally that will tickle adults while children may not see what’s coming. These books are delightful.

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Review 1610: The Talisman

The Talisman is one of Sir Walter Scott’s adventure novels set during the Crusades. In terms of how much it’s based in actual history, I would say not much. For one thing, Scott has bought the myth of the Knights Templar being evil and makes the Templar Grand Master the villain of this novel. However, my 1907 edition of the novel is being marketed as a boys’ adventure story, so its roots are more in the tradition of the old-fashioned romance, in the medieval sense of the word, than based in actual history. I know very little about the Crusades but enough to have spotted several things that were wrong. However, I also don’t know what sources Scott may have been using for his historical background.

On the crusade with Richard the Lion Heart, Sir Kenneth is a poor Scottish knight of no illustrious family who has fallen in love with Edith Plantagenet, a lady far above his station. King Richard being ill, Sir Kenneth travels to see a holy man and healer whom the court ladies are visiting. While he is there, Edith gives him a sign of her favor.

He returns to the Christian camp bringing Saladin’s doctor with him to cure Richard. Richard is quickly cured and almost immediately gets involved in a dispute about his banner. The jealous Austrian Duke has placed his banner next to Richard’s and Richard is furious. He removes the Duke’s banner quite rudely and orders Sir Kenneth to guard his own.

Sir Kenneth is guarding the banner when he receives a message from Lady Edith asking him to come to her immediately. At first, he refuses, but then he thinks this may be his only chance to see her, and he will be gone only a few minutes. He decides to leave his dog to guard the banner. But when he arrives, he finds out that Queen Berengaria has summoned him in Edith’s name as part of a bet and a joke. Kenneth returns to his post to find the banner gone and his dog wounded. Now he’s in big trouble for disobeying orders.

Aside from this silly plot, there is also the one where King Richard’s Christian rivals are plotting against him. Eventually, they send an assassin after him.

This novel is a farrago of nonsense that just gets sillier as it goes on, and it is also written very floridly, combining archaic-sounding speeches with the flowery, elaborate speech of the East. Interestingly enough, Scott was heavily criticized for inventing a Plantagenet (Edith) but not for the more egregious historical errors in this novel. It is not Scott at his best.

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Review 1559: In the Rocky Mountains

Quite a few years ago, I bought an old 19th-century boys’ adventure book, On the Banks of the Amazon by W. H. G. Kingston. In reading it, I was struck by its combination of adventure, interesting information about plants, animals and natives of the area, and engraved illustrations. As a result, I put together a small collection of these books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, trying to find ones in the Our Boys’ Select Library edition of the first one.  (In case you’re wondering why there is a ship and a lion on the cover of a book about the Rockies, they all have the same cover.) I intended to read them all but never got to any of the others. Then when we moved to Washington, they got lost.

That was four years ago, and a few months ago my husband finally unearthed them from an unpacked box of his books. He brought In the Rocky Mountains up to show me, and I decided to read it.

Before the action of this book, Ralph and his sister Clarise were on their way west with their parents to start a new life, but both their parents died en route. Their wagon train was rescued by a group of men, and one of them turned out to be their Uncle Jeff, who had gone west years before and not been heard of again. Now, Ralph and Clarice, Clarice’s servant Rachel, and Uncle Jeff and his men live on a commodious ranch in the foothills of the Rockies, and Uncle Jeff and his men help supply settlers coming through the nearby pass.

A friendly native named Winnemak comes to warn them that a large band of “Arapahas” (by which I assume he means Arapahos) and Apaches have banded together (did they ever, I wonder) and plan to attack their compound. At first, Uncle Jeff is unworried, but the ranchers, along with a small group of cavalry, are overcome and must flee into the wilderness.

Most of this action is designed to lead us to Yellowstone, for the pass to the fort is overtaken by the enemy, so Ralph and his companions must go north, where they end up stranded for the winter in Yellowstone Valley. This leads us into descriptions of the wonders of Yellowstone.

This novel was published in 1901, a good 20 years after the other one I read, and I fear it isn’t quite as good. For one thing, although I try not to judge books by their times, there is a good deal more judgmental treatment of the indigenous peoples than in the book about the Amazon even though it is mixed with having some “good” native characters (which is of course defined by their friendliness to the “harmless” whites). It also expresses an uncritical affirmation of Manifest Destiny, containing a statement (sorry, I didn’t mark the passage to be able to quote directly) that the white men were doing nothing more than trying to get themselves some land when viciously attacked by the natives.

Okay, so maybe all that is to be expected, as well as the stereotypical treatment of the African-American servant and the Irish and German soldiers. On the other hand, the friendly natives express themselves in fluent and educated English, which is surprising for this book, with the exception of saying “Ugh!” as a greeting. (Did they really do that, do you think?)

A fairly minor error is made in illustrating and naming various deer Ralph sees. He talks about seeing wapiti, which is another name for elk, but the illustration is more like a standard deer. Then he clearly describes and illustrates a moose but calls it an elk. Oh dear. As far as I know, those names are not interchangeable. (A friend tells me now that this may be a mismatch between American names for these animals and British ones; however, the book is set in the U. S., so I think it should use the American names.)

I think the thing that for me interfered most with this adventure was a strong Christian message that comes through especially at the end. Ralph and Clarice convert Winnemak from his wicked ways, with no acknowledgment that these peoples have their own beliefs and religion that are just as valid, and Winnemak becomes a missionary. Ugh, as they (don’t) say. I can only suspect that as Kingston got older, he felt compelled to add a moral message. I don’t remember anything like that in On the Banks of the Amazon and I hope I don’t see it in the others, which I still intend to read.

I wrote my review a few months ago, and since then I read an old copy of Walter Scott’s The Talisman, also marketed as a boys’ book and published in 1907. I was really interested to notice in the advertising pages at the back of the book a title In the Heart of the Rockies by G. A. Henty, which appears to have at least a partially identical plot to W. H. G. Kingston’s book only calls its hero Tom instead of Ralph. I looked to see if the names were pseudonyms of the same writer, and they were not. The Kingston book was published a few years before the Henty book, so I’m wondering if a little plagiarism wasn’t going on.

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