Friday, July 4, 2014

Running into friends at the Crowded Closet

Yesterday was errand day, return books to library, take no-longer-needed things to Crowded Closet, the wonderful Mennonite thrift shop in Iowa City.
While waiting to drop off, I noticed, spine-side-up in a scruffy cardboard box, a book written by Scott O'Dell and illustrated by Lynd Ward--The Treasure of Topo-El-Bampo (Houghton Mifflin, 1972). I had run  into two old "friends" in those mounds of discards. Scott O'Dell gave my family some of our best nights when our daughter Sarah, at about age 11, read Island of the Blue Dolphins aloud to Justin, Rich and me. And Lynd Ward, won the Caldecott Medal for The Biggest Bear, a book I read regularly as a preschool teacher in the 1980s and early 90s. He also illustrated six wordless books that are now considered to be forerunners of graphic novels. I asked if I could trade my box of books for this one story.

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
is crossing a river and the two burros are separated from the rest.  They turn return to Topo-el-Bampo bearing three silver bars.

 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.


  1. Two comments, neither of which is really about writing. 1. Just last evening I began a new personal reading program on the topic "books about books" which includes the topic of collecting used and rare books. Leave it to Jackie to spot this gem of a book at a resale shop. 2. Rick Bayless, the Mexican food mogul, is famous for his Chicago restaurant Frontera Grill. At Frontera, there is a small separate dining room -- reservations only -- and the separate dining room is called Topo-el-Bampo. I've eaten there once and it was wonderful. Next time I go, I'll have an even better time because of this book.

    1. Sara, I ate at Topo last summer, and when I first saw the book I wondered why the title sounded so familiar. Then I remembered that wonderful lunch in Chicago. And by-the-way, Rick Bayless has a great little place in the B concourse at O'Hare now. They source their food and list Kalona IA as the place they get milk and cream.