Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

The Painted Chest

by Judith Christine Mills

Haunted by the memory of a great famine, the people in Maddie’s village rise early, work all day in their fields, and fall into bed exhausted. Their larders are full but they have no time to appreciate beauty. Maddie wonders what it was like before the famine, but the only one who remembers is old Geordie. Then one day the villagers unearth a beautiful painted chest. Inside are musical instruments and dancing shoes: useless objects, the villagers decide in disgust. But Maddie can’t forget them and persuades her friends to help her haul the chest out of sight. When the children put on the shoes and begin to play music, their world is transformed and all the villagers rediscover the joy of life.

Mills’s striking illustrations use startling perspectives and close-ups to convey this fable’s message about the transformative power of art. At the beginning, the colours of the landscape and clothing are pale and muted, suggesting the villagers’ drab existence. The painting on the wooden chest hints at other possibilities, and as Maddie and her friends discover music and art, everyone’s clothes brighten in hue until the final pictures are a riot of colour.

The text is less successful. Relying exclusively on third-person narration and lacking the sparkle of a single line of dialogue, it fails to match the mysterious power of the pictures. And although she is responsible for the return of joy to her people, Maddie disappears completely at the end, leaving readers without a strong personal link to the mythic heart of this story.