Thursday, May 22, 2008

Robert McCloskey: New England Dreamin' (for Mom)

As the weather gets more hospitable in the middle region of the country, I know that our days in Indiana are numbered. After this warm, breezy May, Indiana will hand us a sticky and oppressive June. But I'm ready for it, because I've got Central Air and Robert McCloskey's classic picture books: rural and urban New England in the 1950s, all around me, and a carton of blueberries chilling in the fridge. It may just be a coincidence (my mother and our heroine share the same name), but my mother's favorite of these is Blueberries for Sal, the story of little berry-eating Sal and her mother, who find a thrill out berry-picking on Blueberry Hill. The thrill is a mother bear and her cub, also out for berries, and what ensues is a sweet little comedy, McCloskey-style.

How different for the Twenty-First Century Adult Reader, who, if she did not grow up with the McCloskey world, is mentally preparing herself for a bloodbath a la "Grizzly Man." When did surprising a mother bear and cub become a cute adventure? Back in the 50s, when bears didn't wander around half-cocked on behalf of their cubs, and the humans weren't so crazy either. I guess that's what it was like. I have Robert McCloskey to tell me so, and the message is reinforced in other books too, like in my favorite, One Morning in Maine, when young Sal has grown a few inches and now has acquired a little sister named Jane. Sal loses a tooth while out digging clams with her father and has a discussion about teeth and baby teeth; she meets a seal and a loon, and rows to Buck's Harbor with her father and Jane to refill the milk bottles and get the boat engine fixed. Why is this charming? Boat repair and a tooth lost in the mud?

The soul of each story is McCloskey's illustrations.
Blueberries for Sal has a color palate of dull yellow and rich blueberry ink, and the page-by-page illustrations in pencil/charcoal give the feel of constant movement. McCloskey draws wind, and the sea ripples where a seal has just submerged his head, with such immediacy, so beautifully, that the pictures enhance the story but never steal it. This is especially true in the way-famous Make Way for Ducklings. Make Way is set on a little island in the Charles River and in Boston's Public Garden, and follows two anxious Mallard parents on their quest for the best spot to build a nest. What follows is the birth and raising of the Mallard ducklings in busy downtown Boston; the title is taken from the genial policeman who halts traffic for the queue of ducklings following their mother.
Lord love a duck, how I love New England, Central Air, clams, berries, and Mr. McCloskey, too.

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