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Mr. Gaugin’s Heart

by Marie-Danielle Croteau; Isabelle Arsenault, illus.; Susan Ouriou, trans.

In the whimsical picture-book biography Mr. Gauguin’s Heart, Québécoise writer Marie-Danielle Croteau tells how the young Paul Gauguin discovers painting after his father dies. While the family is travelling to Peru, Mr. Gauguin dies suddenly, “carried away,” Paul’s mother explains, “by his heart.” Mystified by this euphemistic explanation, Paul imagines his father sailing through the air, held aloft by the glowing red orb of his heart. When the ship reaches Peru, Paul refuses to disembark, worried that he’ll miss his father’s return. A kindly old man, an artist, becomes a literal and figurative lifeline for the boy: he persuades him to leave the ship and later introduces him to painting. One of Paul’s first works is of a bright red ball: his father’s heart.

This short tale, based on a true story, is charming and poignant and beautifully brought to life by illustrator Isabelle Arsenault’s watercolours. It is best read as a vignette about the power of art and the different forms that mourning and healing can take, rather than as a biography. (Ending with a brief biographical note, providing much-needed context, would have helped the text perform both functions.) Croteau’s focus on Paul’s perceptions enables her to effectively capture the feelings and responses of a young child in a very adult situation, but kids aged 6 to 9 may not be able to understand the context, leaving parents to fill in the blanks (such as the identity of the old man). In this way, Mr. Gauguin’s Heart feels like a study rather than a masterpiece – certainly worth reading, but not wholly satisfying.