WIDELY KNOWN AS A WITTY NOVELIST, Alison Lurie is one of our most astute chroniclers of social mores. She is also a professor of English and of children's literature, and now her story-telling abilities and critical judgements shine forth in her first books for young readers. Gretchen is clever as she manages to outwit even the devil himself; there is a total of 15 adventures filled with the once-upon-a-time triple ingredients so familiar and so dear: The magical three wishes, three curses, three charms, three tasks. The same yet not the same, for in this compilation of resurrected tales it is the Scottish Molly Whuppie who defeats the giant in a female version of "Jack and the Beanstalk"; there is a Spanish sex-reversed "Sleeping Beauty"; another central character is known only as "the Mastermaid."
As awarenes of racism and of pink-and-blue stereotyping have deepened over the past decade, many books have been reexamined for their coloration. Fairy tales and folk tales, long considered classics, have come in for a share of condemnation because of their prejudicial preffered treatment for princes -- whether disguised as frogs or swineherds. Even when the serving maids turned into royalty, they seemed to be always ladies-in-waiting waiting for the glass slipper, for the rescuing knight, for the awakening kiss. They were the treasure, the reward after heroes destroyed the dragons; they were truly sex objects. In the valuable brief introduction to her book, Alison Lurie notes that "most of the editors who chose these stories were men. The original tellers of folktales, on the other hand, were mainly women."
It is inspiring for young readers today to have new (old!) role models put before them: what girl -- or boy -- would not wish to identify with Manka, so wise that she could surely rank in judicious decisions along with King Solomon, or Janet, so fearless that she holds the enchanted knight Tomlin firm in her hands while he turns into a bear, a hawk, a wolf, a snake, a block of ice.
In bringing these stories to light, Alison Lurie has simplified some of the complications of plot at certain times, and has also simpified the language (four of the most rousing tales can also be read in more elaborated versions in Tatterhood and Other Tales, edited by Ethel Johnson Phelps and issued by the Feminist Press). The black-and-white illustrations are agreeable enough; color would undoubtly have enhanced their effect.
In The Heavenly Zoo the pictures by Monika Beisner are glorious; brilliantly varied with rich pointillist detail the night sky; there is even one green skyscape that seems absolutely correct in its dreaming connotations. Each page has a border of stars at the top; even the paper and typeface are to be commended. Everything possible has been done to make this a labor of loving design, and well worth everyone's finicky efforts, for it is a book to be lugged and held dear by children of all ages, and I daresay many adults as well.
As with Clever Gretchen , there is short, straightforward preface, and sources are noted. Expectedly, the Greek and the Roman myths are heavily represented; less predictable are the choices from Indian and Slavic lore, and two retellings from the King James version of the Bible. The language has musical cadences throughout; the language is also meticulous, as in this passage: "Zeus, the king of the gods, saw her and fell in love with her. At first, remembering her promise, Callisto resisted him; but presently she returned his love." It is hard to choose favorites, but certainly Callisto's transformation into the Great Bear, with its warmly maternal conclusion, is one. Europa and the Bull is on the disappointing side, because it is so curtailed; one longs for details rather than the phrase "after many adventures."
But I do not wish to accent shortcomings, for there is an abundance of celestial delight here. To signal choice bits, there is "The Ram," with its joyful tone and remarkably pacific exchange between God and the devil; "The Swan," accenting the place of friendship in the account of Phaeton and his father's fiery chariot; the North American legend of odschig the Fish, who brings summer down from the heavens for six months a year to replace the perennial cold and snow of Lake Superior.
Absolute top favorite, my desert island choice, would have to be the creation myth of "The Dragon," taken from the Tablets of Assur. Alison Lurie has adapted it so that it begins: "Before our world was made, so it was written in ancient Babylon, there was no sky and no earth, only a waste and conclusion of waters. The ruler of the fresh water was Apsu, and the ruler of the salt water was the she-dragon, Tiamat. They met and mingled together, and from them a race of gods was born." The rendering contains a terrifically cinematic contest, and "After the battle was over, Marduk split Tiamat's huge body into two parts like a shellfish. From one half he created the earth, with its mountains and valleys; he separated the salt water from the fresh, and made great rivers flow into the sea. The other half he raised up, and of it made the heavens, the dwelling-place of the gods." Read about the rest of the Creation, read and reread about all the creatures and the stars for yourself; Alison Lurie has given us a heavenly book indeed. a