January 15th, 2004

Tom Lehrer is Smug

Literary regression

So last week I splurged on a whim and visited amazon.com for a little nostalgia. I can't remember where I was when I had that Proustian moment but the establishment had, on one of its walls, an ad for an old Disney movie called "The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin", a grand old yarn set in California right as the Gold Rush was, well, rushing along. The story involves a young boy who runs away from his prim and proper old Bostonian home to find adventure in the gold fields, and his prim and proper Bostonian butler (played by Roddy McDowall) who accompanies him -- of course, Praiseworthy the butler doesn't cotton too well to the rough and ready lifestyle of the gold rushers, but then he stumbles into quite a reputation as a prizefighter and hero and earns the nickname 'Bullwhip' and becomes, well, you can probably guess. A legend of the olllllllll' west.

I don't think I've actually seen the film, but I have read the book upon which it is based. By The Great Horn Spoon! is a kids' novel written by one Sid Fleischman, who specialized (specializes still, by the looks of his website) in grand yarns set in the frontier Manifest Destiny days of America. He tells enough tall tales in any one of his historical kids' novels to stuff a goat, and you actually end up learning something too if you're not careful -- tidbits such as using bacon rinds to keep wheels from squeaking, or measuring distance by tying a ribbon to one spoke of a wheel and counting how many times it goes around, and then doing the appropriate math. That's what I remember from 'em, at least.

I grew up reading a few of his books over and over again: By The Great Horn Spoon! and Chancy & The Grand Rascal and Mr. Mysterious & Company. Reading over his website, I'm pleased to see that Sid actually did study and take up magic (Mr. Mysterious involves the westward trek of a vaudeville magician and his family.)

He also has some great writing tips for anyone. I'm particularly fond of #3, myself.

But this is all beside the point. The story I remember most from Sid's stuff is Chancy & The Grand Rascal, which is more or less a great tall tale involving the Ohio River and a young man who's trying to reunite his brothers and sisters, and ends up finding his uncle Will, who's the grandest rascal who ever lived. There's orphans and a raft and tall tales about growing crops right on the moving mud of the Mississippi River. I liked it.

I got this book from my great-aunt Anne, who would give me and my brothers books and toys that her own kids (a good 10-15 years older than us) had outgrown. The copy of Chancy that I had featured a real weird line drawing on the cover of the main characters, drawn in what I can only describe as a folk art line drawing kind of style. I read the book even though as a kid I thought the drawing was really really really simplistic and out of date. But once I read the book, I was a convert. It was a lot of fun to read.

Apparently Chancy went into a new printing recently but the price of the book via amazon was too much for me. However, they did seem to have a few used copies, and I picked out a "1966 printing" for about 5 bucks. I figured what the heck, spend a few bucks, get a nice book. It came in the mail while I was away. It does indeed have the picture on the cover I remember, and it's grown kind of endearing to me. I don't think it's so goony anymore, even if the characters have Margaret Keane eyes almost. I forgot the illustrations continue on into the story, but once I remembered they existed, the memories of 'em came back at me ("Oh, ok, there's gonna be a picture coming up next of the little girl hiding in the potbellied stove ... yeah! There it is!") But that's not what hit me the hardest.

The book is an ex-library book. From the Tuckahoe Public Library, Tuckahoe, New York, to be exact. (10 points if you can tell me which famous sassy television character lived in Tuckahoe.) The library stamp is there. The book plate on the inside front cover is there. The book is covered in that thick, reassuring library plastic and the card catalog sticker "J - Fle" is on the spine. It's just as if I'd checked it out myself as a kid, and for some reason this is helping me regress a hell of a lot tonight. (No, I haven't checked out a library book in a very long time and part of the reason is that sometimes when I check out library books, I forget to return them. And I do not wish to continually incur the wrath of the Overdue.)

The sad thing, though, is the dates of the stamps on the back cover. Here they are:

Jan 29 '68
Feb 12 '68
Feb 27 '68

Oct 13 1992

Can you believe it? At the risk of playing the Empathy game and anthropomorphicizing and all that, isn't that sad? This poor little book sat on the shelf for almost 25 years in between checkouts, and then waited another 12 years before the library decided it should find a better home. I wonder how many kids passed it up. I wonder if they passed it up like I almost did because of the cover (yes, bringing the cliche to life.) Boy, did they miss out.

And now the book is mine and I guarantee it won't stay on a shelf so long. It'll get read time and time again. Thanks, Sid.