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Book Reviews

The Painted Wall and Other Strange Tales

by Michael Bedard

Michael Bedard, winner of the 1990 Governor General’s award, offers young readers a challenging collection of 23 tales ranging from ghost stories to love stories. Selected and adapted from the Liao-chai (a collection of 431 Chinese tales published in 1766), these short stories offer wonderful entertainment while also inviting contemplation.

The introduction, which is an invaluable component of this book, explains how the Chinese scholar Pu Sung-ling compiled a collection of Chinese stories that resemble the folktales collected by the Grimm brothers. As well as being an excellent addition to a study of folktales, this book will be an asset to students learning about Chinese culture. The stories include characters such as Taoist priests, magistrates, courtiers, scholars, thieves, monks, fairies, and spirits. The settings vary from temples and monasteries to palaces and mountains. In “Past Lives,” the main character, Mr. Lin, describes his past incarnations when he was a horse, a dog, and a snake. As a tribute to his time as a horse, he never ceases to remind people to wear a saddlecloth while riding and to “spare the whip.”

Bedard’s skillful retellings result in concise but engaging folktales. A perfect balance exists between the essential details and the minimalist structure. In “Paper Robes,” an innkeeper apologizes for not having a room; the four weary travellers insist, and there is a long pause before the innkeeper says, “there may be something that will suit you if you are not too particular.” This ghost story is sure to spark the imagination of readers, who might well wonder what it would be like to sleep in a room beside a dead girl’s body. Only one traveller wakes to tell the tale.