A DOG ON BARKHAM STREET (1960) By Mary Stolz
WHAT DO grown-ups hope to accomplish when they give a book to a child? Well, first, obviously, they want to give the child pleasure. From this point of view, and depending on the child's tastes, Nancy Drew and Charlotte's Web make equally good presents.
But of course grown-ups, especially parents, have lots of other objectives. They may hope to encourage a currently non-reading child to become more of a reader, and hence be picking a book as effortless as possible. (Depending on the child's tastes, Nancy Drew may be ahead here.)
They may also be thinking about the child's real life. Say they have just moved from Wisconsin to Washington, depriving their son of a chance to go into fifth grade with his Milwaukee friends. He minds that, and says so -- often. The parents' eyes are apt to light up when they see a kids' novel about starting out in a new school, and how after weeks of loneliness fifth-grader Fred gets accepted. They may well get a copy for their own unhappy Kevin.
There's more. The parents may be trying to improve the child's character. In that case, instead of problem-books they will be giving virtue-books. In Victorian times a virtue-book was apt to stress honesty, hard work, obedience to one's parents. A current virtue-book, while certainly not discouraging honesty or hard work or even going to bed at the time set by one's parents, is more apt to stress sensitivity, caring and openness to new experience. Concepcion comes from Guatemala, and at first she seems totally weird, but later she becomes Kate's best friend. That sort of thing.
There's more still. The parents may be thinking about literature, not life. They then carefully avoid all the Nancy Drews and mutant turtle books. If it's mutation, they think of Pinocchio, or Arthur in The Once and Future King. If girl detectives -- but they don't think about girl detectives. They think about Jo March and Mary Poppins and, not yet a Wilder, Miss Laura Ingalls.
The parents may even be thinking about themselves. If they've got any sense, and they expect to read so much as one chapter of the new book aloud, they certainly will consider themselves. They'll get a book that will interest them, too. Goodbye Nancy Drew.
Most of these goals do not conflict with each other. In fact, every now and them there's a book that combines practically all of them. Mary Stolz's A Dog on Barkham Street is such a one.
To begin with, it gives a child enormous pleasure. Probably it gives the most pleasure to a child who, like the main character, is a pre-adolescent boy -- but I have also seen an adolescent girl reading it with delight. My daughter when she was 15.
The pleasure comes from many things. First, the book creates the wonderful safe, snug feeling of a happy family. And it does so with utter truth. Edward Frost, the 10-year-old boy who's the main character, is both highly individual and a sort of epitome of boydom, down to his messy room. Mrs. Frost, his mother, has plenty of faults, including being a nag -- a sweet-tempered one -- and even more virtues. She is a delight to read about. Mr. Frost is a father one would like to have.
Then there's the plot. Edward's may be a happy family, but that doesn't mean nothing happens. On the first page of the book you learn that Edward has the misfortune to live next door to a boy two years older and very much bigger than he, a bully by temperament. No father and no mother can protect a child from humiliation by another child, though in this book both try.
On the eighth page of the book you learn that most of the time Edward isn't trying to escape the boy next door, he's wishing he had a dog. His mother has said no dog until he shows himself responsible about his room, his father's tools, etc. She wants him to be responsible about the dog, too, so she won't always be the one having to clean up after it and take it for walks.
On the 33rd page of the book you learn that the uncle Edward has never seen is about to come for a visit. Edward has never seen Uncle Josh because Josh is a hobo, a living testament to irresponsibility (and freedom). For the last 10 years he's been out west, bumming around. When he does arrive for the visit, he has with him an altogether endearing dog named Argess.
These three elements of plot -- the bully, the dog, and the uncle -- work together in complex and unexpected ways, and produce the sort of book that children stay up late in bed to finish.
But the biggest source of pleasure is the style. Mary Stolz plays the English language the way Rostropovich plays the cello. She can make it do almost anything. That's easy for me to say. It's also easy for me to demonstrate. Consider just the first paragraph of the book, wherein the reader is plunged into Edward's life:
"Edward Frost, who had his share of problems, didn't see how he'd ever solve the biggest one. This was Martin Hastings, the bully of Barkham Street. Martin was two years older than Edward, and there was no solution for this. Martin would continue to be two years older until he was a hundred and Edward was ninety-eight. Edward had a feeling that even then he might not be entirely safe."
If that last sentence doesn't fetch you, then you probably don't like stylish writing. Even then, you might enjoy the way Stolz combines adult and childish points of view in that sentence, clearly loving both. Even if that leaves you cold, you might admire how she has a story off and rolling in less than 75 words.
But enough about the elements of pleasure in this book. Now consider some of the other objectives a person might have in giving a book to a child. To encourage a currently non-reading child to read. I doubt if A Dog on Barkham Street is suitable for that. The language is clear, and even simple, but the thought is not.
How about for dealing with a problem? You bet. This book has a lot to say to any kid who has been bullied -- and were any of them to read it, it has a lot to say to bullies, too. They might even come to understand what makes them do it.
Virtue? Yes, that's here, too. The deepest theme in the whole book is the question of responsibility. Edward, his friend Rod, Uncle Josh, Mrs. Frost, Mr. Frost, the dog Argess, a nameless railroad man, all contribute to that theme. Rostropovich is now conducting the orchestra. In no way is the book saying some simple-minded thing about do your duty and act responsibly; on the contrary, it's the very real lure of a life like Uncle Josh's that gives the book its force.
Good literature? Yes, of course. A pleasure for the parent to read aloud? If you're in any serious doubt, go back and read that first paragraph aloud right now. After that, you might want to go get a copy of the book. Noel Perrin teaches American literature at Dartmouth.
Note on Availability: "A Dog on Barkham Street" is available in a Harper/Trophy paperback edition for $2.50, as are its sequels, "The Bully of Barkham Street" (1963), which is told from the point of view of Edward's nemesis, the bully Martin Hastings, and "The Explorer of Barkham Street" (1985).