Thursday, September 1, 2016

Book Review: Arabel's Raven

Title: Arabel’s Raven

(That's the new edition, not the one I've dressed the doll to match.)

Author: Joan Aiken

Date: 1975

Publisher: Dell

ISBN: none

Length: 118 pages

Illustrations: Quentin Blake

Quote: “‘That bird gets more attention than the Lord Mayer of Hyderabad.’ ‘He doesn’t know that,’ said Arabel. ‘He hasn’t been to Hyderabad.’”

Here are the first three preposterous adventures of preschooler Arabel and her pet raven, Mortimer. In the first of these longish short stories Arabel’s father, London taxi driver Ebenezer Jones, finds Mortimer in the street, stunned by a reckless motorcyclist, and takes the bird home. Arabel, who was promised a hamster when she’s five or a puppy or kitten when she’s six, bonds with Mortimer the next morning.

Arabel is a thoroughly working-class child, with a hardworking father who’s usually on the job and a rather ditzy mother. Part of the charm of the four books about her and Mortimer is that, although nobody seems ever to have fussed over Arabel or tried to teach her anything, she’s usually figured things out quite well. Her consciousness seems like what you remember of being her age—no time for a lot of thought or “feelings” about circumstances, just add up the data supplied and get a workable answer. People who notice her think she’s too little to be out on her own. Nevertheless she gets herself through situations, and out of them, with aplomb and with a sort of precociously consistent responsibility for Mortimer’s well-being.

Mortimer is not an especially clever raven (or even a believable one, when you think about him) but almost instantly he becomes what Arabel has for a friend. In Joan Aiken’s full-length novels a sort of signature motif is a pair of gifted children; in the stories about Arabel and Mortimer, Mortimer seems to move into the brother’s position, although the only word he says is “Nevermore.” He says “Nevermore” often, usually to comic effect. He is able to fly, but usually prefers to walk—when he can’t get someone to carry him, or tow him on a wagon as Arabel often does.Like real birds, he doesn’t often show affection in ways humans recognize, but he does make an effort to visit Arabel when she’s ill with measles.

This is the background for stories that are more coherent, but no less ridiculous, than the ones four-year-olds make up for themselves. Mortimer foils jewel thieves who’ve committed unsolved burglaries with the help of a squirrel (the squirrel is trained, but its character is apparently evil); he gets sucked into a professional chimney sweep’s industrial-force vacuum cleaner; he learns to operate vending machines during a relatively tame excursion around the city at night, while police are catching another criminal and the adults Arabel knows, drinking Adult Beverages at a party, scramble every report of what’s happening into something sillier than what they’ve heard.

The adventures Arabel and Mortimer share will get even goofier in subsequent books, but readers really ought to read their stories in sequence, because later stories refer back to earlier ones. In this book we learn where Mortimer got his obsession with hunting for diamonds, and meet some of Arabel’s relatives who will be mentioned in later books. The later books would be laugh-out-loud funny if you didn’t have this background information. My experience has been that they’re even funnier if you do.

Another word of experience…Many of Joan Aiken’s short stories are only moderately funny; some are meant to evoke senses of nostalgia, wonder, or spookiness rather than laughter. When I discovered this writer in high school I read Not What You Expected and The Faithless Lollybird, of course, and reading those left me unprepared for this series, which is meant to be hilarious. Adults (and teenagers) should preview these stories, privately, before reading them aloud to children. They are that funny.

How impossible is Mortimer, exactly? Bernd Heinrich’s raven studies are a good follow-up after reading these silly raven stories. Mortimer is a cartoon character, but real ravens really are built and “wired” differently from other birds; they really can do a lot of things other birds either aren’t able to do, or don’t enjoy doing, apparently just for fun. They are wild birds and don’t normally like humans much (although they recognize humans as one kind of predator whom it may be profitable for a wild raven to lead to a freshly killed animal). They can, however, bond with humans. Many birds mimic sounds other creatures make, with varying degrees of skill. Ravens, like crows and parrots, are relatively intelligent birds and can learn enough words to make rational, though limited, conversation with humans if they feel like it.

They can roll over and lie on their backs, too…and although they’re not as bothersome as parrots are about it, they can and do amuse themselves by biting pieces out of things they don’t want to eat, possibly just to see how something that formerlyhad a straight  edge will look with a jagged one. As a joke Mortimer’s taste for “eating stairs” seems to me even funnier if you’ve watched a real large bird shaping its beak on the edge of a real shelf, stair, or windowsill.

What about Arabel? The cliché about choosing books for children is that they like to read about characters their own ages or older. In practice, funny stories seem to relax this rule. Middle schoolers my age laughed at Ramona as much as Henry Huggins, at Linus and Sally as much as Lucy and Charlie Brown, and those of us who discovered Arabel in the 1970s laughed at her adventures too.  Arabel is a bit like Linus, actually—a very small child whose mind sometimes seems ageless, an “old soul.” If you’re shopping for the rare four-year-old whose eyes focus at close range long enough to read a book, that child might enjoy this series too. Arabel’s adventures are perhaps ideal for teenagers to read aloud to four-year-olds.

Joan Aiken, unfortunately, no longer has any use for a dollar...and, because Paypal has been forced to start dipping into small payments to survive, this web site now has to add a surcharge to our fee schedule. The cost is now $5 per copy of this book (and of most other books), plus $5 per package (covering as many books as I can squeeze into the box, if you order multiple books), plus $1 if you pay online. Since the Post Office collects its own fees, the surcharge does not apply if you send a U.S. postal order to the address shown below. (The surcharge will apply if we ever accept other forms of online payment; currently we accept only Paypal.)