Friday, March 5, 2010

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes

This is a story about a sister and brother, Rachel and Jerry Pye, and their dog Ginger. It's almost a mystery story, because partway through the book Ginger is kidnapped (!!), but it is overall a story of a basically happy family and the children's basically happy everyday lives.

Rachel and Jerry have quite an active social life in their neighborhood, so the book's cast of characters is large; however, they remain two-dimensional for the most part, although we do learn a lot of biographical details and personality quirks. The children's parents first met when their father ran up a down escalator and knocked their mother down at the top; they call a neighbor Mrs. You Bet because she ends a lot of her sentences, you guessed it, with "you bet"; they have a neighbor who is known as the "perpendicular swimmer" because he prefers swimming straight up and down to across the top of the water, to name a few examples. Most of these don't come into the plot at all, but I think a lot of them would make an 8- or 9-year-old laugh.

The astute reader can see the theft of Ginger a mile away, since the children are followed by a mysterious stranger in a yellow hat from the day they bring the puppy home. The culprit turns out to be a surprise to Jerry and Rachel, but not to the reader. I will say, though, that the conclusion is handled differently than I expected. Spoiler Alert! It turns out that Jerry's classmate Wally had kidnapped Ginger to be part of a vaudeville act; Jerry and Rachel spot Wally on a train, leaving town to join a circus, and his hat (which they recognize from the mysterious follower) flies off into their hands. While they're busy explaining to the police, assuming that Ginger is on his way to circus life with Wally, their three-year-old uncle (long story...) has found Ginger, who had in fact escaped on his own that morning. Ginger shows signs of having been forced to learn various tricks in the months he was missing, and of having suffered some form of abuse from his kidnapper, but in the end they all live happily ever after.

Jerry's revelations in the last two pages are the book's most insightful paragraphs by far. He remembers wanting to teach Ginger all kinds of tricks, when he first got him, to show the neighbor kids that his dog was the smartest of all. Now that he has Ginger back, he just likes having him back, and is a little sad when he walks on his front feet or turns a somersault - he realizes that Ginger doesn't have to earn his love, and hopes Ginger knows it too. And they all think that Ginger is an even more beautiful dog now that behind the happy exterior, you can see in his eyes that he has known pain and sadness, and is glad to be where he is.

This doesn't make great reading as an adult (I laughed, though, at one chapter describing Ginger's relationship with his reflection - my dog spends a lot of time growling at what we call "mirror dog" too!), but I think it would be an amusing read for a 2nd or 3rd grader, and the end might give them something to think about. Or they might miss the point entirely (I'll admit to being somewhat oblivious to this kind of subtlety at that age). I give it a 4 for an adult, but maybe 7 or 8 for the intended audience.

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