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I've been sick as three dogs for the past week and a half, a last tail-lashing by The Brooklin Cold (or plague) before it leaves town for the summer. On the plus side, I've finally made a dent in my To Be Read pile--in this case, that meant revisiting my childhood, also a good thing.
While I've got your attention, a shameless plug: If you're near Chicago Saturday, drop by the Printers Row Lit Fest, where I'll be on a panel called "Elementary, Dear Watson" at 12:30 pm on the Mash Stage. I'll join Ilene Cooper, Brenda Ferber, Kristina Springer, and C. Alexander London to talk about writing for teens.
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The Good Master
By Kate Seredy
Scholastic paperback, 1991
To enjoy The Good Master is to question everything you think you know about what makes a good novel for children.
For example, it’s a given these days that we keep the reader with us by increasing the dramatic tension any way we can. Make Harry Potter an orphan and set a murderous wizard after him, then kill off every father figure he’s got. Make Harry feel the deaths are at least partly his fault. Violate the reader’s trust so many times that finally the reader really, truly believes that Harry might get killed off, too.
Another given: Characters must have faults.
So here’s this book, a Newbery honoree in 1936. Its author, Kate Seredy, was born and educated in Hungary, served as a nurse in World War I, then emigrated to the U.S. in 1922 to seek work as an illustrator. She wrote The Good Master after an editor at Doubleday suggested that children might be interested in tales set in the Hungary of her childhood. It won the Newbery honor; her next book, The White Stag, won the Newbery medal in 1938. The Singing Tree, a sequel to The Good Master, won another Newbery honor in 1940. Seredy wrote nine other books and illustrated countless others before her death in 1975.
|One of the author's illustrations for The Good Master|
I can attest that children were interested in Seredy’s Hungarian tales, because I enjoyed them myself when I was 8 or 9. I had only vague memories of them, however, and when somebody handed me The Good Master a week or so ago, I wasn’t even sure this was the same book I’d loved as a kid. Until I googled her, I had no idea that Seredy also was the author of The Chestry Oak, which I must have taken out of the library sixteen times in fourth grade.
So I re-read The Good Master as an adult—an adult who is in the middle of revising a novel, pumping up the dramatic tension every chance I get.
I became reacquainted with Jancsi, the young son of a prosperous rancher on the Hungarian plains, and his madcap city cousin, Kate, who comes to live with his family. I revisited Jancsi’s perfect parents and their salt-of-the-earth shepherds, horsemen, and farmhands, riding out on the plains with them and listening to folk tales by the fire. We celebrated Easter. We went to a country fair. Not exactly tense.
Kate is the only major character with real flaws, and they are attractive ones: “She’s the most impossible, incredible, disobedient, headstrong little imp,” her father writes, pleading with his brother to give her some fresh air and discipline. Minutes after we meet her, she’s running off with a wagon and a team of horses.
Kate quickly settles into farm life, however. She and Jansci have a couple of adventures with rampaging horses and river currents. Kate exposes a charlatan at the fair. The major incident, a potentially stirring one, is Kate’s kidnapping by a band of stereotypically swarthy, good-for-nothing gypsies.
|The original cover|
An hour later, the book ended with a couple of cloyingly sentimental “surprises” that had been telegraphed for pages. I set it down, sighed … and realized to my surprise that I was a completely satisfied, blissful reader.
Heart, that’s how. Seredy didn’t just write this book, she felt it. So what if Jansci’s father—the “good master” of the title—has no faults. That’s how Seredy remembers men of his type. She’s not cynical about it, she’s not giving us what she thinks we want and will pay for. She’s giving us everything she’s got in her heart.
It’s interesting that the one vision that stuck with me all these years—a moment when Jansci’s father stands there getting soaked in a drought-ending rain, arm outstretched, face to heaven—turns out to be a minor incident in the book. The drought and attendant fears take up about four pages of text. But it struck me hard as a kid—I was so involved with these people that Seredy didn’t need to go on for pages to tell me how fragile their lives could be.
I was in Hungary at that moment, transported out of my eight-year-old self. That’s the power of a good book, and I guess I’ll trade it for dramatic tension any day.
If I can't have both, that is.