Friday, July 4, 2014
Running into friends at the Crowded Closet
I started started the book during the ride from the thrift shop to the grocery store and felt as if Scott O'Dell was talking from the back seat:
"Long ago, two hundred years ago almost, the poorest village in all Mexico was Topo-el-Bampo. Not one person in the village was rich. Not the grocer nor the baker nor the man who sold sandals and straw hats, candles, charcoal and cooking pots. Not even the mayor, Franciso Flores, was rich." One reason the mayor is not rich is that he has a large family--nine children and two burros--and Grandmother Serafina, "who was one hundred years old and toothless but still ate a lot." And the burros: "Tiger was small for a burro. ...You could hit him with a stick and he never got angry. ... Leandro on the other hand, was twice the size of Tiger. He had long white teeth and a glossy coat that looked like chocolate pudding."
The mayor sells the burros to the owners of a silver mine. Carrying silver bars from the mine to Mazatlan wears out the burros so the mine owners have to continually purchase more burros. Tiger always remembers the way back to Topo-el-Bampo and turns toward the town on every trip. One day bandits attack while the mule train
Scott O'Dell gives us the time (two hundred years ago) the place, the characters, even the characters of the mules. We have Topo-el-Bampo as a setting and we have the mine. O'Dell describes the mine by describing the party that occurs at the mine on the day the silver-bearing mules leave:
"The brothers set up great tubs of red punch and carts filled with steaming tortillas. At night they sent rockets streaking into the sky and a band played merry tunes until dawn....They seemed to forget that they never were paid for their work. That they were really slaves. That the Vargas Brothers gave them no money, nothing except a hut to live in and a pot of beans each day. They forgot that the mine was a thousand feet deep and had five hundred steps. And that twice every day they had to climb that ladder, hand over hand, with a heavy basket of silver ore strapped to their backs."
This is setting, too. And it shows us that Scott O'Dell thought kids could handle the whole story, the days when the kids at Topo-el-Bampo were hungry, the mine slaves who lived on a pot of beans a day. I think Lynd Ward must have agreed with him. The expression on the mule crossing the river is one of struggle and despair. The story is painted on a large canvas, large enough to include this musing by Father Bruno: "Where does the treasure go?" the young padre asked out loud. "It goes across the seas," he answered himself, "into the chests of the King of Spain to be used for war." Kids who read this book in the 1970s could focus on the parts of the canvas best for them, the rest would be there, to be discovered later.
I'm not sure, where, or if, this story would fit on today's bookshelves. It's got a lot of words. Ward's illustrations are done in only two colors. But it does make me wonder if we can make our canvases bigger in our writing for young children. I don't know. Maybe this is the kind of book that belongs on a shelf in a summer cabin, or in Grandma's attic, for a rainy afternoon read that's a trip to another time and place. I hope kids find it, by chance, the way I did. I think they might never forget the encounter.