Fuse #8

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Review of the Day: Hanne's Quest

This sounds a little odd to say, but I can’t think of a better way of introducing this book than to say the following: From the creator of “Gossie”, "Ollie" and “Gossie & Gertie” comes an epic quest novella... about a chicken. If that doesn’t trip smoothly off the old tongue it's little wonder. Dunrea and his corresponding publisher Philomel (a division of the Penguin Young Readers Group) decided to do things a little differently with this small folksy book. It’s a nice story with a steady heart and a practical soul. It also treads some overly familiar ground, however, so if you’re looking for something with a storyline that doesn’t sound like something you’ve heard many times before, consider searching elsewhere. It's a pleasant little story that is sure to endear itself with some. Just make certain that the person you purchase it for belongs to that selfsame “some”.

For years and years Mem Pockets has run her little farmhouse and chicken coop with a staid and loving hand. In that time she has made a habit of collecting eggs from her remarkable Scaldy hens to sell them at market. Nothing shakes her pleasant world until the arrival of a letter informing her that she owes quite a lot of back taxes. Mem is distraught, not having the money at hand and knowing that within thirty days she will be forced to leave the home she loves, to say nothing of the chickens. The hens, for their part, realize that something must be done. After a quick conference it is understood that a single hen must go on a quest of great peril. If she survives the barrow, the Standing Stones, and the Green Great Sea, she will have the ability to lay three golden eggs. Only a chicken of the purest heart born in the darkest phase of the moon can go, and that hen, believe it or not, is the youngest of the brood. She is a little black chicken by the name of Hanne, who carries with her a quiet strength. Now, in spite of her size and timid nature, Hanne will set off to save the farm and help Mem Pockets. Whatever the cost.

Dunrea writes with a slow steady hand. Your average reader gets the feeling that he’s working at his own pace and feels little need to hurry-scurry through the various plot element too quickly. It’s reminiscent of the old “Wind In the Willows”, but for a much younger set. There’s also a nice low-key wisdom to the characters in this book. When a mole informs Hanne in the barrow that, “Things are never black as they may seem”, the book leaves enough room for little ones to draw their own conclusions. Perhaps a little more confusing (as in, “What is the author trying to say?”) is when that same mole later states that, “We cannot choose our Fate in this world”. Make of that what you will.

There are some lovely things in this book. Comfortable things. Though it is never given a country, the feel of the story is very British, albeit the Britain of small islands and villages. There’s a pagan feel to the tale that makes it all very interesting too. Mem Pockets celebrates Midsummer’s Eve and on the Winter Solstice, “the old woman sat up all night with the hens and told them about the Mystery of the Death of the Old Year”. Good wins over evil, as would be expected, and in the end the bad guy is arrested for... um... being a bad guy, I guess. It's a little unclear. Ditto how the chickens reproduce without any roosters around.

In the School Library Journal review of this book, the reviewer noted that, “Dunrea’s hens and chickens are infused with charm; folk-art galleries would provide a better setting for his art than a chapter book”. Certainly there are some strong similarities between this book and Bruce McMillan’s, “The Problem With Chickens”. I thought Dunrea did a lovely job with many full-color pictures in this book, making it so that it doesn’t really fall readily into any one category. The pictures, lush evocative gouache, complement the story to a tee. I felt they worked with the story, as a readaloud. So no objections here. One on one readers might find them a bit young for their liking, I suppose.

It’s no coincidence that booksellers like Barnes and Nobles and Amazon.com have chosen to pair “Hannne’s Quest” with Kate DiCamillo’s simultaneous release, “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane”. Both books share a sense of nostalgia, “Tulane” for the supposed “classic” children’s books of the past and “Hanne’s Quest” for low-key folktales about doing what is right. Both books are also so steeped in this nostalgia that they fail to make a convincing case for why they themselves are original works of art and not mere copies of older titles. The ideal customers of “Hanne’s Quest” are the grandmothers and aunts of kids who want to give their young relatives something that squeaks of timelessness. There is a possibility that “Hanne’s Quest” will be deeply beloved of the youngsters who receive it, true. There is, however, an equal possibility that it is the kind of story that will never see the light of a second or third read. I believe the book is deserving of consideration, but I do not think it needs much more than that. Nicely written but not something that will stick in your mind very long after you, or the child you read it to, finishes with it.

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