If Huck Finn were to review this book, he might begin something like this:
For a fellow who told his share of stretchers, Mr. Mark Twain weren’t no great shakes in the home stretch. Some of his books begin with a roar and end with a squeak. Take “Roughing It,” a prancing memwire of his early times as a miner and reporter in Nevada, which pulls up lame at the end with a yawnsome account of a Sandwich Islands holiday. (In case you’re wondering, nobody ate the Sandwiches. They’re still out there in the Pacific, going by the vowelly name “Hawaii.”) Or take the exceedingly well-named “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” a giant of a book until the last chapters, when it shrinks to a midget. Other Twain stories didn’t end at all. And still others barely got off the ground.
But Huck is unavailable, so you’re stuck with me.
Among the Twain products left at the starting gate was “The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine.” Late in the afternoon, when Twain had written himself out for the day, his children were apt to ambush him in the parlor, where little Clara would pick up a magazine, point at a picture and demand a story about it. One day, the nod went to a figure drawing, which Twain brought to life as a boy named Johnny. So well received was the first installment of Johnny’s history that Twain found himself obliged to pull what he called “a brand-new story out of that barren text during the next five ensuing evenings.”
A portion of one Johnny tale was saved as notes on paper. These pages eventually landed in a vault at the University of California at Berkeley, where their growth was stunted for well over a century.
Recently, a college professor stumbled on the notes. Soon, the Mark Twain studies crowd was leaping for joy — and for money. When everyone was back on terra firma, Caldecott Medal winners Philip Stead and Erin Stead were hired to turn the notes into a book, which is now available for the first time.
The wording of “The Purloining” fell to Philip, who makes a dandy Mark Twain Jr., especially when imitating Senior’s fresh slants on everyday things. To wit:
“Parades are not for everyone. They are, rather, for people who like to wake up very, very early and make a lot of noise from the start. These qualities were not present in Johnny. Or in his chicken. So both now found themselves experiencing the kind of discomfort foreign to anyone accustomed to living life at enormous volumes.”
Erin’s illustrations use woodblocks, oil inks and pencils to create a gauzy, dreamy look — just the thing for a story that involves talking animals and a kidnapped royal.
One thing about “The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine” won me over right away. As imagined by the illustrator, Johnny could be the grandson of Jim, the escaped slave from “Huck Finn.” He’s the kind of sojourner who’s content with animals as traveling companions — a chicken, a lion, a skunk and so on. Those animals have a lot to do with freeing the snatched prince.
“The Purloining” should inspire readers young and old to seek further adventures with Twain.
Dennis Drabelle is a former contributing editor of Book World.
By Mark Twain and Philip Stead
Illustrated by Erin Stead
Doubleday. 152 pp. $24.99. Ages 8-12