By 1928 Hugh Lofting had written eight Dr. Dolittle books, and wanted to do something else. This book, his only non-Dolittle novel, was the result, and while it’s quite different in some ways from the Dolittle books, it’s equally charming and well written.
It’s also the only book of his illustrated by someone else. Lois Lenski, at the beginning of her career, was an excellent choice. Like Lofting, her drawings were simplified and a bit cartoony, but Lenski had greater skill and her drawings for this book capture a medieval flavor that I think would have been beyond Lofting. She, of course, became a prolific children’s book author and illustrator of nearly 100 books.
Giles and Anne live in a medieval town, and they are fascinated by an old woman who sells apples in the street, Agnes the Applewoman. Some call her Shragga the Witch, and think her and her two black cats dangerous, but when Giles and Anne befriend her, they find she is a kind person who simply tries to help the sick and poor with her medicines and doctoring. Giles and Anne’s father is deeply in debt, and they may soon lose their home, so the children appeal to Agnes for help. She finds for them a magic shell by the seashore. When put to the ear, instead of simply sounding like the ocean, it allows one to hear what others are saying about you anywhere in the world. Agnes tells them, “Whoever carries the Whispering Shell to the one in greatest need of it shall make his fortune.”
At the time of the story, Lofting says, magic is dying out to be replaced by science, and the Whispering Shell is the only magic in the book, but it plays an important role when Giles is able to give it to their kingdom’s new young King, on a visit to their town. Using the shell, the king is able to learn of and thwart a threat to his life, and in gratitude, the king makes Giles a valued member of his royal household. Giles, using the shell secretly, takes on the role of the King’s Finder, and amazes the court with his ability to find lost things.
This story grows naturally from a simple tale of two children to the story of a kingdom, its court and ruler, and the difficulties and rewards of royal life. Lofting’s writing seems to grow with this challenging subject, and the characters gain a depth and emotional resonance that is rarely found in his other books. There are some animals in the story, but they do not talk. Instead, the people and their world take center stage. It’s an excellent tale, well told and highly recommended.