Days were blurring into weeks, and I had a flustered feeling. When days like these rear their heads, I reach for a children’s book to read. I’ve said it before, and I shall say it again, and again: Children’s book authors and illustrators are the true custodians of the human spirit.
I had picked up a book left unwritten by Mark Twain, and finished by another author of today, Philip Stead. The book’s title is a mouthful, and its contents a mindful: The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine: By Mark Twain & Philip Stead (Illustrated by Erin Stead)
Apparently, Mark Twain, after a long day’s work, was asked by his children for a story using a picture as a prompt everyday, and this story was told to the little girls in France. He liked it enough to jot it down, but did not quite finish it.
When a book like that comes along, it feels like perfect cure for the cold winds whipping the Californian hairlines. The narrative voice makes you sit up and wonder how brilliant it is, and brilliance in simplicity is rare indeed. The book suffuses you with enough warmth to get you going through the windy, cold days.
The story starts off with a simple note from the Author explaining the circumstances and getting us to believe that Mark Twain told him the story about our hero, Johnny, while sipping tea and coffee overlooking a lake on Beaver Island. This simple note then sets the tone for two unreliable narrators in the story, and the book chugs on towards the hinterlands of imagination giving us a healthy dose of incredulity, hilarity and thought.
Our Hero, Johnny, lives a miserable life on a farm with his miserable grandfather and hen named, Pestilence & Famine. One day, he is sent off by his grandfather to sell the hen, and off goes Johnny with Pestilence & Famine.
A Jack & Beanstalk-y bit later, Johnny finds himself with an kind, old lady who trades him the hen for some old blue seeds, with the promise that if tended to properly, a plant will rise, and “when a flower comes up, eat it, It will make you full and you will never feel emptiness again –“
“I tell you this”, Twain said to me, raising his teacup in the air, “there are more chickens than a man can know in this world, but an unprovoked kindness is the rarest of birds.”
“So, did the hen die?” asks the Author of today, and Mark Twain says yes, while the author today believes that the hen and old woman are living happily.
“Your version lacks credibility”, said Twain. “Surely the old woman is dead. “
“And it should be noted”, he added, “that if Charles Darwin taught us anything, it is this: The chicken is dead too. And, lucky for her, because there are many unflattering ways to leave this world, but none quite so unflattering as being forced to live in it.”
The blue seeds turn out to yield the Juju flower, and Johnny finds himself hungry and desperate even after eating the Juju flower. He walks to the edge of the forest, and falls feint only to look up and find a skunk, Susy. After nearly losing his mind Johnny says to Suzy, the skunk: “How is it that you can talk?”
“All animals can talk! … A lion can speak to a squirrel can speak to an owl can speak to a mouse. A camel can spend to a pig who can speak to an elk can speak to an elephant. A whale can talk to a gull. A giraffe can speak to a hermit crab. It is only humans that no one can understand. It is why they are so ignorant and backward and lonely and sad – they have so few creatures to talk to” Susy added. “But I do not mean to offend, You do not seem ignorant or backward.”
“But you understand me?” asked Johnny.
“Yes”, answered Susy, “for evidently you have eaten the Juju flower. It is rarely given to anybody.”
Please read the rest of the book to see what happens to Johnny and how he finds himself going to the King of the land.
Mark Twain’s words are still prescient:
“Terrible things are always happening to Kings. It makes you wonder why anyone would want the job at all.”