Saturday, March 11, 2006

Reader's Diary #48- Bud Davidge (Text)/ Ian Wallace (Illustrations): The Mummer's Song

In P.E.I. one summer I picked up a copy of a children's book called Hockey Night Tonight. It was Stompin' Tom's "Hockey Song" with illustrations aimed at children. I thought it worked great- the folkish quality of the song, with simple rhymes and subject matter seemed in hindsight, destined for a children's book. Newfoundland folk songs could easily be adapted for such a purpose as well if someone was to take up the project. While "The Mummer's Song" probably wouldn't be my first choice for a children's book (for reasons I'll get into later), it works. And yes, I know this is a Christmas book but when your daughter is 2, you find yourself reading such books in March.

While I'm not a particular fan of nostalgic books for children, or of coloured pencil illustrations, in this case both are forgivable. While Newfoundland parents might be nostalgic for the subject matter, children will just be interested in the bizarre costumes and partying customs of the mummers. Non-Newfoundlanders should find the whole thing intriguing. The text is taken straight (almost) from Bud Davidge's "The Mummer's Song" recorded by Simani and has enough rhymes (or near rhymes), rhythms, and silliness to keep all ages entertained.

Ian Wallace does an amazing job with the illustrations. While I usually view coloured pencil illustrations for children's book as good in theory only, this one pulls it off. Dawn Baker has a Newfoundland Alphabet for instance, that because it is done in coloured pencils, pales in comparison to Kevin Major's Canadian abecedarium Eh to Zed. I guess the theory behind choosing colouring pencils is that it's a medium that any child can relate to and it might even inspire them to create their own coloured pencil masterpieces. Unfortunately, the end result is too often a washed-out looking picture that simply bores children. Wallace makes you forget that it's colouring pencils. His attention to detail is uncanny. It's hard to believe that he didn't grow up in Newfoundland. He also chooses very interesting angles- especially in the scenes with the dancing mummers. He captures the pure chaos of the moment showing on a single page, multiple frames of a lamp at various angles (accompanying the text "Be careful the lamp and hold unto the stove.") There's another particularly well done scene at the end with a mummer in the foreground and Granny's house looking peaceful once again in the background. However, there is one picture that I have a small problem with near the beginning; there's a mummer at the children's bedroom window rapping on the pane with a stick. While I do remember that half of the charm of seeing mummers as a kid was being slightly scared of their boisterousness, having them at my bedroom window would have given me nightmares up to the present. It's unfortunate that Wallace chose this bizarre and unrealistic scene because it seems to be the focus of some critiques I have read. For instance, Ruth K. MacDonald (from School Library Journal) refers to the scenes as "scary", "hellish", and "nightmarish". I think MacDonald is being unfair, because with the exception of the one scene I've already described, the book isn't frightening and it does capture the essence of mummering quite well.

I had thought that the publisher's would have made the book a little more p.c. and edited a couple of the original lines. I'm sure there are those out there who would have problem of the mention of "home brew" or saying, "My God, how hot is it?" but I'm glad it was kept in. If I was writing a children's book, I'd probably avoid topics that might get me banned from school libraries (though I haven't heard of this one getting any heat) but that's not why this book was originally written. It was a song first, and so the the text should be true to the original lyrics. Furthermore, home brew was a popular drink of choice for mummers, like it or not. However, so was "alchy" and that's where the book's one attempt at censoring comes in. As far as I know (correct me if I'm wrong) the original line goes "Don't 'spose you fine Mummers will turn down a drop/ No home brew, nor alchy whatever you got" but in this book "alchy" has been changed to "syrup". I realize that syrup is a big Newfoundland tradition too, but the change was unnecessary. While offering NABs to the mummers is a nice gesture, it wasn't the original lyric and I doubt it'll improve the book to those who are offended by "alchy" anyway- afterall "home brew" was left in. Furthermore, if you were a person who was attracted to this book- out of nostalgia- I think you know that mummering involves drinking anyway and reading a book about it to your children is a choice you'd make on your own.

A few last comments about the book's special features; the afterward is written by Kevin Major and is especially good for mainlanders buying the book out of some cultural curiousity. It details what Newfoundland mummering is (was) all about. Also, it has the notation for anyone who wishes to "plank-er down."


Robert Hiscock said...

I'm thinking 'alchy' was dropped because it's a reference to the long-held south coast tradition of drinking smuggled alcohol from French-owned St. Pierre. Home-brew, while not something you'd encourage kids to have, is legal and 'alchy' is not. I'd guess that may be part of the reason it's been altered.

John Mutford said...

I figured it might be something to do with legality. Still, I think it's unnecessary- I mean mummering isn't exactly common anymore anyways. So if the book is used in a historical sense- the "alchy" is just reality, not in any way promoting illegal activity. Besides, isn't mummering itself still technically illegal? And that's a question I'm throwing out. I've done a lot of searching on the internet and some people say it is, some people say it isn't. Maybe in some areas?

Robert Hiscock said...

I'm not sure where it stands these days but I seem to recall there being some sort of change, or discussion of change, in its legal status recently

John Mutford said...

A year later and I'm still thinking about this book. Perhaps because my son has taken a shining to it and I've read it alot lately.

Two additional comments:
1. In the illustration set in the children's bedroom, there's a copy of Maurice Sendak's "In The Night Kitchen". I'm guessing the major reason for this is Sendak's use of panels (vs. single illustrations) on each page- Wallace uses the same approach to "The Mummers Song." I also think he tried to keep the dreamy feel, not to mention both books are set in a kitchen. That said, Wallace didn't sacrifice his own style while paying homage to Sendak, each illustrator's work is very different.

2. Upon further reflection of Ruth K. MacDonald's "scary" comments, there are more frightening scenes than the one I described. Shadows cast a sinister air about the room and no doubt the masks themselves are a bit alarming. Then there's a scene which I think sheds the most light on why Wallace did this. A masked character, almost with the face of a skull, has his arms around the old grandmother, who has her eyes closed and her hand to her chest. Seem terrifying? Until you notice the hands. The masked character has a child's hands and therefore, is just the grandson playing with his granny. This element of fear was a part of mummering as I remember it. But the fear, never intense, was part of the allure from a child's perspective. Brilliant of Wallace to capture that.