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Book Reviews

Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes

by Margaret Atwood, Dusan Petricic, illus.

Fox on the Ice/ Mahkesis Miskwamihk E-cipatapit

by Tomson Highway, Brian Deines, illus.

Established authors of books for adults who turn their hands to children’s literature tend to take one of two routes. Some focus the lens of childhood on the same material that they use in their adult fiction. For example, the novels of Booker Prize-winner Penelope Lively, whether adult or juvenile, deal in precisely the same themes and settings. Other writers use the opportunity of writing for children to access some part of themselves that is not given play in their adult work. English novelist Ian McEwan, known for his cool, dark, suspenseful, intricate fictions, unleashes a surprisingly sunny narrative self in his children’s book The Daydreamer.

A couple of fall offerings on the Canadian scene, children’s books by established adult authors, reveal both these tendencies. In the plays of Tomson Highway a typical scene opener involves somebody coming onstage saying, “Have you heard the news?” This spirit of community and family reporting, anecdote recounting, and storytelling infuses his children’s books as well. Fox on the Ice is the third in his Songs of the North trilogy, a set of picture books about two brothers, Joe and Cody, who live in far northern Manitoba with their parents and their dog Ootsie.

Published bilingually in English and Cree, the trilogy reveals a world of freedom, beauty, imagination, and adventure. Warm, lyrical illustrations by Brian Deines are a perfect match for Highway’s easy, honed, deadpan style. In this tale the family goes ice fishing. After a picnic lunch, Mama and Joe settle down for a little nap on the sled while Papa and Cody begin to set the nets by sending the jigger from one hole to another. (For another representation of this ice fishing technology, see W.D. Valgardson’s Thor.) But the sudden appearance of a fox spooks the sled dogs who take off, with Mama and Joe in tow. This presents Papa with a panic-inducing dilemma: “If he didn’t scoop the jigger out of the hole, it would just keep on moving under the ice. Then he would lose both his jigger and his net. But if he waited for the jigger, he would lose Mama and Joe.” Naturally Papa chooses to pursue the sled, but all turns out well as the heroic Ootsie saves the day.

This story has the polish of an oft-told tale, a family story passed down through generations. Each of the three volumes of the trilogy concludes with a sentence that includes the phrase “laughing and laughing.” It is a good sound to end with. The only disappointment about this book – and the others of the trilogy – is that most of the audience gets only one-half of the sound of the story. Anyone who has heard Highway read knows how much the sound of the Cree language adds to the narrative for all listeners. Any chance of a bilingual CD?

Asked to describe the work of Margaret Atwood, words that would not immediately leap to mind are rollicking, roustabout, or rambunctious. She has, however, obviously been keeping these “R” qualities hidden until this moment. (We did, of course, have a partial perspective on Atwood’s penchant for patter in her 1995 publication, Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut.) Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes is a hero’s quest. Ramsay is forced to live with a trio of rude, gastronomically challenged relatives. He makes a break for freedom, negotiates a dark tunnel, and finds a garden of earthly delights and a true friend. Atwood’s vaudevillian turn here is an exhaustive use of the sound “r.” “Residing with Rude Ramsay, who was red-haired, were his revolting relatives, Ron, Rollo, and Ruby. They were rotund but robust, and when not regaling themselves with rum, they relaxed in their recliners, replaying reams of retro rock ’n’ roll records, relentlessly. This could be rigorous.” Relentless rigour pretty much describes the pace of Rude Ramsay as well. Atwood lets up for only one moment in the whole story. She lets us get our tongues untangled at the story’s turning point with the blessedly R-less and artless line, “But then a small girl appeared.” Then we’re off again and running.

This romp is rendered (this is contagious, restrain the rampaging reviewer right now) hugely more effective by Dusan Petricic’s fabulous, inventive, odd illustrations, in which he gives the characters flesh and bones. Having seen his version of the rude relatives – a trio of thuggy androgynous baseball players – and his vision of Ramsay – a rooster-haired kid with a pronounced overbite – I can’t imagine them any other way. His page design for the attack of the robotic radishes manages to be both hilarious and genuinely threatening.

Ramsay is a read-aloud challenge, a challenge that obviously taxed the copy editors as well, as they let slip a mix-up between Ralph and Ramsay in one scene and let the word reflugently pass for refulgently in another. Nevertheless, when Ramsay steps up to the footlights and takes a bow at the end we are happy to join with the animal chorus roosting on the ramparts in cheering “rah rah” for the R’s poetica of both author and illustrator.