rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
[personal profile] rushthatspeaks
Review from July 3rd.

You get two books today, because I found Jill Paton Walsh's Birdy and the Ghosties and Matthew and the Sea Singer together at the library and they're both short. Jill Paton Walsh really came to my attention when [ profile] papersky gave me a copy of Knowledge of Angels, a staggeringly brilliant medieval theological fantasy which is one of the few books I know that really captures the way in which people in the past simply did not think the way people in the present think. In the process of my mentioning to [ profile] sovay that everyone in the world ought to read Knowledge of Angels, [ profile] sovay looked up Walsh's bibliography. I discovered I'd had The Green Book read to me in elementary school and had read about six of her others, in that way where one reads things as a young teenager and promptly forgets the title and author but can recite sentences word-perfect a decade later. Then [ profile] sovay discovered that she'd been looking for the titles and author of Birdy and the Ghosties and Matthew and the Sea Singer for the last twenty years, because they were formative, so I read them.


You can read each of these in about ten minutes, even if you aren't me, because they are very short, but they will stick with you. They have the kind of language that feels hewed out of solid oral tradition, found or grown rather than designed, and yet constructed with a layer of novelistic care as well as the classical pattern of the folktale. If I am reminded of anything, which I'm not, really, it's Alan Garner's Stone Book Quartet, except that these are for anybody from about the age of four up.

Birdie, Bird Janet, lives with her mother and father in a hut where a road meets a river and the river meets the sea. Her father is a ferryman, mostly rowing across the river but sometimes taking people to the nearest sea island. In Birdie and the Ghosties, Birdie learns that she has second sight (delightfully and pragmatically expressed as looking at everything twice), which becomes useful when her father gets asked to ferry three ghosts across to the second sea island, the one that wasn't there until that morning, and Birdie has to sit in the bows to even out the weight of the boat. Her father can't see the ghosts at all. This is one of those books that has a surface plot, which is perfect, and then another set of things going on which are more concealed, which are also perfect, and which rose up and smacked me on the last page so I had to sit blinking and contemplating for longer than it had taken to read the book. Astonishing.

Matthew and the Sea Singer is slightly less complex, but funnier: Matthew is an orphan Birdie buys from a cruel master, who is taken by a sea queen because he has a voice that sounds like heaven. She won't give him back unless they teach one of her sea creatures to sing just as well as he can, which is not an easy proposition; for one thing, it has to stay wet, and the parson is the choirmaster, and nobody's quite certain it's right to have it flopping about in the font like that... According to [ profile] sovay this one is a real folktale, although not one I'd heard before. It's also basically perfect. I can't figure out how either of these books could possibly be improved on. They have good illustrations, even, watercolor over pen-and-ink with a slightly smudgey feel that works well for both funny and numinous.

These are utterly spectacular and I urge you not to miss them if you like folktale retellings at all even a little bit. They're out of print, but I had no trouble at the library, and it was the town library, not the university, so they shouldn't be that hard to track down. Buying them, on the other hand, well, going to have to work on that, I think. It will be worth it.

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