Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Book Review Club: June

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@Barrie Summy

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
Doubleday, 1935
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
 We hear most of that tale from Kate herself, after the fact when she’s already been rescued. It’s a bit of a wet firecracker, causing me to spend several fruitless minutes imagining what might have been and wondering if Seredy's editor thought kids couldn't take the pressure. (She'd faint today.)

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.

Huh? How on earth did Seredy do that?

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.


Keri Mikulski said...

What a fascinating review. And to think the book was written eighty years ago. Wow. Thanks so much for the educational post. Good stuff.

Sarah Laurence said...

I hope you feel better soon - how miserable! I enjoyed your take on Harry Potter as much as your reread of this classic. Good luck with the panel.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Lovely review! I love rediscovering childhood favorites as an adult and have often marveled at the simplicity of the story lines. I'll take it too!

Barrie said...

Hope you're feeling better! I'd love to see you on the panel....perhaps one of these days our paths will cross. Interesting about re-visiting childhood book loves. I loved Galiano's Circus as a child, but, same thing, the tension was minor compared to what I read/my kids read now. Thanks for joining in!

Ellen Booraem said...

Huh, I've never heard of Galiano's Circus...I'll have to check it out.

Unfortunately, my cold has given me an ear infection. Should be an interesting plane flight! My only wish is to have some hearing left for the panel. ;-)

kayerj said...

I like a book that leaves you feeling completely satisfied. What a great trip to your past. I'll have to look this book up.

Linda McLaughlin said...

What an interesting review, Ellen. The name Kate Seredy rings bells with me but I can't remember which of her books I might have read in my youth. Re-visiting old classics reminds us how much fictional styles have changed, perhaps something to do with the shortened attention spans of contemporary readers? This sounds utterly charming though. And I think you're right that a book written with "heart" will appeal even if the rules aren't strictly followed.

Thanks for dropping by my blog to share your mom's experiences with the advent of penicillin. It truly was a wonder. Hope you cold gets better and the panel goes well.

Ellen Booraem said...

Thanks for stopping by, all!

I'm thinking of trying to find The Chestry Oak to see if it has the same qualities as this one. I was totally obsessed with that book for about a year, as I recall. It didn't have quite the same quality of "everyday life in a foreign country" (which would have attracted me to The Good Master)because it was about a child of the nobility who is uprooted by war and ends up in the U.S. So there must have been another attraction, and I'm dying to find out what it was!