The Scarecrow and his Servant Review – My Destiny Calls and I Go!
February 27, 2010 Leave a comment
I only wrote my children’s literamature article a couple of hours ago, and already I’m a bit embarrassed by it. I think I muddled it up a bit in trying to get my intent across. Perhaps I’ll write a response to it some time, but in any case, here is a review of the book I had mentioned:
The Scarecrow and His Servant
A children’s fantasy novel by Phillip Pullman
score: ***** outta five
“And you know, you were quite right about my brain,” the Scarecrow said reassuringly. “I don’t miss it at all.”
What to do when you, an inanimate object, stuck in a muddy field, are suddenly gifted with life? When a chance lightning bolt grants you something so mysterious and complex? Why, seek adventure, of course!
What do you do when you meet such a creature? When you are a boy with no prospects and no family (thanks to the wonders of war), with nothing to him but his wits? Why, become his servant, what other choice do you have?
The Scarecrow and His Servant is a charming little book written by Phillip Pullman, of His Dark Materials fame. Perhaps I will look at those books once I get around to re-reading them, suffice to say that they are some of the best and most imaginative fantasy books I have read by anyone. The Scarecrow and His Servant succeeds on a smaller scale, and what it lacks in scope and complexity, it makes up for in its brilliant sense of humour and its witty writing.
The story begins with a tired old farmer, owner of the estate of Spring Valley, plagued by many and grievous troubles, most of them too difficult to deal with, except for the problem of birds. He erects a scarecrow, which gets shall we say, appropriated by farmer after farmer, until it is a far way away from its home. The universe then deigns to grant it two things: life, and a servant.
Jack, the aforementioned servant, is the grounded youth of the story, Charlie Bucket or Oliver Twist but even cleverer, and he is tasked to take care of and accompany the Scarecrow as he seeks the place “where it belongs”. This is easier said than done, as the Scarecrow has a pea for a brain (and a turnip for a head). He is enthusiastic, charming, honourable, a true gentleman, an enemy of birds (for they are the source of the world’s woes: a man of detestable villainy is, most likely, just a very big bird in disguise), a Don Quixote with about as much understanding of the world as a small child. These, our heroes, drive the story, and their dialogues and interactions are almost always funny, sometimes even laugh out loud. You can’t help but warm to Jack’s ingenuity and steadfastness (and loyalty to his alarmingly imbecilic master) or the Scarecrow’s spirit and reckless enthusiasm. Pullman writes the voices of his characters very naturally and with great personality. His prose is not intricate or awkward; it is so simple you do not even notice its nature as prose, even as it paints the set-pieces for the story and pulls you right into them.
And the adventure is far from dull. Running into brigands, acting in a play, fighting in a soldier’s battle, the story never lets up on the excitement, with plot developments becoming increasingly ridiculous and fantastical, and all the while our heroes are chased by the Buffalonis, corporate bigwigs and family of the farmer that owns Spring Valley, with their devilishly familiar plan to turn all that nature into a “poison factory”. Jack is the only child in this book, and the adults are all contemptible; They are either stupid or evil, something of a cliché in children’s stories, but this is what allows for the humour of it all, so we can forgive him as he puts it to good use.
Being a children’s story, the book is also peppered with the black and white line drawings of Peter Bailey. The style is sketchy and scribbly and perfectly complements the story. They call up in my mind the covers of Roald Dahl books, another great kid’s writer (perhaps the same artist? They similarity is uncanny, at least in the vagueness of my head).
The way all the pieces of the journey (and of the Scarecrow, for that matter) are all tied together with the Buffalonis’’ scheme in the climax is a very satisfying conclusion to the tale. Only a few pages into the chapter you will likely have easily figured it all out; but this is, after all, a kid’s book, and you can appreciate nonetheless the cohesiveness of the narrative. Some of the more emotional parts near the end are even a little moving; Certainly a child would be moved by them.
But, you know what? I could have skipped all that verbosity and simply wrote this conclusion, for you can describe this book in just a few words. Charming, witty and funny, this book takes the conventions of fairytale and quest and weaves it into a picaresque novel that both you and your kid can enjoy equally, unless you are perhaps the most serious of men.
The Rating System:
* crap; in all likelihood, avoid
** meh; not quite worth your time
*** decent; nothing or not much new
**** good; polished, solid, give it a chance
***** great; among the best of its kind