Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: THE CAPTIVE by Scott O’Dell

Cover illustration by Marie Lemoine.

This is the first book of a trilogy about the conquest of Central America by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, after the voyages of Columbus. I’ve put off reading it for a long time because I expected it to be a sad and painful story. The first section is just that: Julian Escobar, a young Jesuit seminarian is enlisted by a Spanish nobleman, Don Luis, with a charter of ownership for one of the Caribbean islands. He tells Julian he wants him to bring the word of God to the natives living there. When they arrive, Julian soon finds out he is nothing but a way for Don Luis and his shipmates to charm and calm the natives while they collect all the gold they can find, and take many of the natives prisoners to be sold as slaves.

Is it the wrath of God that next takes the ship into a hurricane that wrecks it? Julian ends up on the shore of what is now probably Mexico, and for a while he is a hermit like Robinson Crusoe. Things change again when he is found and helped by a native girl, and eventually meets another Spaniard, Don Guillermo, who is working for the Mayans. Guillermo sees in the handsome, golden-haired Julian the echo of the old Mayan legend of Kukulcán, a man from their past they worship as a god. Julian would soon be ritually slain by the Mayans, but if as Guillermo suggests, he pretends to be Kukulcán, he might instead gain great power. Julian doesn’t want power, but neither does he want to die.

A well-written and thoughtful historical novel, as all O’Dell’s books are. I will look for the rest of the trilogy, even though I know it can’t end well.

Recommended.

 

Rereading: DOCTOR DOLITTLE AND THE SECRET LAKE by Hugh Lofting

This book follows directly from “Doctor Dolittle’s Return,” with the Doctor growing discouraged with his attempt to grow plants from seeds he gathered on his trip to the moon in an effort to recreate their long-life properties. His assistant Tommy Stubbins and his animal family want to cheer him up, and they think a sea voyage would be just the thing. They hit on the subject of Mudface, the ancient turtle who was aboard Noah’s Ark that the doctor met in Africa, but when Tommy decides to get the Doctor’s notes on him from storage, it turns out they’ve all been chewed up by rats making nests. Meanwhile, Cheapside the London sparrow and his wife Becky have been sent to Africa to find out what’s going on with Mudface, and learn an earthquake has buried him under rubble and mud in his secret lake in the swamps. All this precipitates the Doctor returning there on a voyage to help Mudface and to get him to retell his story about the biblical flood he witnessed.

One interesting thing about this book is that it was begun right after “Dr. Dolittle’s Post Office,” where we first met Mudface, or perhaps was originally meant to be part of that book but cut for length or subject matter. The beginning of the book certainly seems to be written later, as it involves things that happened later. About half the book is Mudface’s tale of the ark and the flood, which is mostly different from the biblical version, makes the turtles heroes of the story, and does not paint Noah and his family in a very good light. I quite enjoyed reading it again. One aspect of the story resonates in an interesting way: some of the animals want to kill the few remaining people so that they will be rid of man’s domination of them, and constant warfare. Prescient of Orwell’s “Animal Farm”?

Recommended.

And Then I Read: ABOUT THE SLEEPING BEAUTY by P.L. Travers

Travers is best known as the author of the Mary Poppins books, by far her biggest success. She wrote some other fiction I like almost as much. This book from 1975 is listed in her bibliography as non-fiction, but it’s actually a mix. First, she gives us a new 40-page retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story set in an Arabian Nights sort of world. Some of the elements were familiar to me, some were not, but the telling is handled skillfully, and gave me some new insights on the themes and characters. Next, there’s a 20-page essay on the Sleeping Beauty myth and aspects of it found in many cultures. This was interesting, though I thought some of the stories referred to did not have much in common with the story as we’ve all heard it. In part two of the book are five other versions of the tale from different cultures, eras and interpreters such as the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault and others unknown to me. All interesting, though again some of these tales are barely related to the story I know. Still, quite interesting and worth reading.

The illustrations are all full-page ones, many using black line art with one other color, like this one. Charles Keeping was a celebrated and prolific illustrator of children’s and adult books. I found his work here interesting, but somehow a bit too “fashion illustration” for the stories, and even somewhat erotic at times, not really what I expected. They’re certainly fine work.

Overall, I recommend this book, but it doesn’t come close to the Mary Poppins books in my opinion.

And Then I Read: THE EARTH GIANT by Melvin Burgess

Cover art © Michael Chesworth.

Published in 1995, this fantasy novel has some fine moments and a unique title character. In a great windstorm outside their house, Peter is excited by the danger and damage while his younger sister Amy is fearful. When a loud tearing sound startles them, somehow Amy knows it means an ancient oak tree not far from their house has fallen, and it contains a secret she must investigate on her own. When she finally has a chance, she finds something amazing in the root ball under the fallen tree, a huge, strange giantess who seems to be sleeping. Soon the giantess wakes, and Amy finds she can communicate with her mentally, but not using words exactly, more like pictures and emotions. When Peter discovers the secret visits Amy and the Giant have been having, with the Giant taking Amy  on her shoulders around the area, he is jealous, but soon joins in the secret. The Giant needs a safe place to hide. She is waiting for some kind of rescue that will be coming soon. The children find an abandoned theater she can hide in, and begin to try to understand who she is and where she comes from. Can she be a prehistoric human of some kind? Her dog-like face and very long limbs suggest not. Then where did she come from, and how did she survive for so long beneath the tree? These are some of the questions that they try to answer, and when Peter threatens to expose the secret, the Giant and Amy run away together, causing even more trouble.

Recommended.

Rereading: DOCTOR DOLITTLE’S RETURN by Hugh Lofting

As i work my way through my collection of the Doctor Dolittle series, I found I hadn’t remembered much about this one. I may have only read it once before. Lofting had published a book in the series nearly every year from 1920 to 1928. “Doctor Dolittle in the Moon” of 1928 was meant to be the final book, but as often happens with popular series, Lofting resumed with this one in 1933 either due to popular demand, because he missed writing them, or perhaps financial or other reasons.

The doctor’s animal family in his home in Puddleby-on-the-Marsh miss him greatly, though Dolittle’s assistant Tommy Stubbins continues to keep everything running as best he can by doing some odd jobs to pay the bills. Everyone is waiting for the signal from the moon that the doctor is on his way back, and it finally comes during an eclipse when everyone is watching, a huge puff of white smoke. A few days later, a giant locust arrives with Dolittle on his back, along with his animal companions Chee-Chee the monkey and Polynesia the parrot. Everyone is shocked to see how large the doctor has grown due to the diet on the moon, even though Tommy Stubbins had grown there before he was sent back a year earlier. Dolittle is much bigger, far too big to fit into his own house! Once he has recovered his senses, he begins an exercise regimen that will reduce his size back to normal in a month or two. Another traveler has come with them, Itty the Moon Cat. She is mostly an ordinary cat who has agreed not to harm or frighten the rest of the animals living in and around the Dolittle home. The other animals fear and shun her despite the doctor’s insistence she be welcomed. Surprisingly, this is the first house cat ever to appear in the series. Lofting was clearly not a cat person.

Once the doctor has recovered, he is anxious to begin work on a book about his discoveries on the moon, but is soon swamped with animal patients who take all his time. A plan is hatched to get the doctor into a place where no one will bother him: jail. It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to achieve. Tommy Stubbins begins to take up the slack in the animal doctoring business. He has no medical training, but has been assisting Dolittle for some years, and the animals soon come to accept his treatments.

Many more interesting episodes and stories fill this volume, including the tale of Doctor Dolittle’s final months on the moon, and how he came to return. I’d place it near the top of my favorites now, perhaps third behind “The Voyages” and “Post Office.” Three more to go, but this one is certainly recommended.