Monday, July 30, 2007

A depression-era childhood

When Lloyd Alexander died last May, I decided to read one of his books that I'd never read before, just to spend a little more time with him. Cool Motorcycle Dudette, the excellent children's librarian I work with, recommended this one, and it has sat on my book pile since then, I'm ashamed to say.

I'm afraid being in a post-Potter-funk may have colored my reading of this one a little bit. It was a good book, but not the sort of novel that lurks in the back or your mind at all times, urging you to get back to it and keep reading at all costs. Having only read Alexander's fantasy novels, I suppose I was expecting something fantastical and otherworldly. What I got was a sweet novel that read almost like a memoir. I have not yet researched it, but the details of a 1930s boyhood feel autobiographical, and I know that Alexander was from Philadelphia, where the novel is set.

Our hero is David, an 11-year-old who calls himself the "invisible boy" - no one in his family seems to notice him, except when there are chores to be done. The one exception to his feeling of invisibility is when he's with his ancient Aunt Annie, a former schoolteacher whose eyes seem to see right through him. When David nearly dies of pneumonia, the doctor decrees he should not go back to school - he needs rest, light exercise, and plenty of fresh air. This sounds marvelous to David, who hates school anyway, but then he finds himself sent to be tutored by Aunt Annie, called a "proper Gorgon" (mispronounced "Gawgon" by David's Aunt Rosie).

His trepidation about his elderly aunt soon vanishes, however (although in his mind he still calls her The Gawgon), when he discovers she is a fascinating person who has traveled all over the world, and who has that rare gift in teachers: she fires his imagination and makes learning exciting and interesting.

Interspersed in the narrative are stories that David invents and illustrates, based on characters and events that he is learning about, in which he and The Gawgon are the heroes. They meet Sherlock Holmes, Napoleon, Polydectes and Perseus. Personally, I found the stories to be an unwelcome interruption to the narrative as a whole, but I think a younger reader might not only enjoy the humorous detours but also become encouraged to learn more about the people and events in the stories. It would have been nice had the publisher included the pictures "drawn" by David.

I particularly enjoyed the details specific to the 1930s that made the narrative ring so true. For example, when David first uses The Gawgon's ink to write an assignment, he is pleased and surprised to find it holds nothing but ink. At school, the inkwells were "usually jammed with chewing gum, spitballs, dead flies, and unrecognizable foreign objects." I'd never thought of that before, but it makes perfect sense - of course that's how school ink bottles would be! And when he is invited for a glass of lemonade at a neighbor's house, he marvels at the cubes of ice in his glass, instead of slivers, which meant it came from one of the new electric refrigerators, rather than being chipped off a large block of ice, like at his house.

I definitely enjoyed this sweet coming-of-age story.

Awards: ALA Notable Book, 2002

The Gawgon and the Boy by Lloyd Alexander (Dutton Children's Books, 2001)


  1. I love Lloyd Alexander. I was so sad when he died. Reading more of his books is a great tribute - I've also only read his fantasy novels, and I need to do something to change that. Thanks for the review!

  2. It hit me pretty hard, too. I hate when beloved writers die! All those books they never got to write, sigh.


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