This small book tells the story of Gaspard l'Innocent, a simple craftsman who lives alone and contented in the French Pyrenees. Every two weeks, he travels to the local town market to sell his worthy but unremarkable violins to buyers of unexacting taste. One day, while at the market, Gaspard, driven by an impulse he doesn't understand, climbs a brick wall to rescue a young bird stranded high up on the town cathedral. On the way home, he gives the bird to Matthias, the toll collector. He soon regrets the decision, for the bird quickly grows into a marvelous creature, large and beautiful, capable not only of human speech, but of prophecy. It foretells the future, in riddles, but always truthfully.
Matthias sets about improving his fortunes by exhibiting the bird around the countryside until Gaspard, unhappy over the bird's confinement and exploitation, steals it from him and sets it free. In princely gratitude, the bird tells Gaspard how to make his instruments "sing with a human voice," which knowledge brings the violin maker fame and fortune for the remainder of his life.
The story wears the air of a fairy tale or legend, though both characterization and setting are realistic rather than symbolic, as folk tales are. The prose style is graceful and straightforward; the narrative mixes reality and fantasy without blinking or blushing. There is a good deal of description, little dialogue, no child character and no humor. The nearest comparison is with some of Julia Cunningham's semi-fantasies, though Kushner is less pretentious than Cunningham about weighting his story with moral significance.
According to the book jacket, this, the author's first writing for children, won the 1981 Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award. It is a somewhat puzzling choice, I think, since it is not clear that the book will readily find an audience among children. While the wholly adult cast of characters does not automatically put the story outside a child's interest, neither does it help to draw a reader into a tale whose concerns (the sound of a violin, for example) and references (to Napoleonic battles, peasants and gypsies) are likely to be unfamiliar. Moreover, the message of the narrative has none of the simple clarity of the fairy tales it resembles in other ways.
Gaspard is obviously on the side of virtue when he decides not to exploit the bird, as Matthias has done (and as he considers doing himself), but to set it free. Yet the bird's gift in return, while it makes Gaspard's fortune, also destroys his simple life and, with it, his peace of mind. "The pressures of business worried him . . . (he became) anxious and his face took on a drawn, peaked look." It is a grayed conclusion which has neither the triumphant closure of a fairy tale nor the firm, plain morality shared alike by children and folk literature. Kushner's blend of the real and the symbolic blunts the point of the tale.
I would guess that the story is best read aloud by an adult, which the author's care with language would make a pleasant task, to listeners about 7 to 9 years old.
The pen and ink drawings by Doug Panton are detailed but unsatisfactory overall. I like the sense of the terrain they convey, but the human figures are stiff and amateurish. The picture of Gaspard as he climbs down the wall after rescuing the bird shows him apparently floating in the air in front of the wall; contrary to the text, there is not a foothold in sight. As for the bird, repeatedly referred to as "small" at this point in the story, he works out to being about as long as Gaspard's arm, if the drawing is to be believed. Adults may not notice, but children wll.or of children's literature at the University of Maryland, is the author of A Moral Tale: Children's Fiction and American Culture, 1820-1860.