Tuesday, March 2, 2010
The Old Tobacco Shop, by William Bowen
I found this book a bit confusing, to say the least! The main character is Freddie, whose age is never given, but he's only just begun to not call himself "Fweddie". In the illustrations he's very feminine looking with his bushy hair, full lips, and foofy Eton suit! In any case, Freddie is sent to the tobacco shop in his new neighborhood to pick up some pipe tobacco for his father. The shop is run by Toby, who lives in the building with his Aunt Amanda, an old maid who mostly sews in her rocking chair and, perplexingly to Freddie, always seems to have a collection of pins in her mouth. Toby fills Freddie's head with tales filled with strange characters, the most noteworthy one concerning the "Chinaman's head" which sits on the shelf with the other various samples of tobacco. Freddie is told that it contains a very special tobacco and that it must never be touched!
Of course, Freddie finds himself alone in the shop and lights up. He's not a smoker, mind you, he just wants to try out that mysterious Chinese tobacco! The lighting of the tobacco summons a sailor fresh off the seas, who is very annoyed to have been summoned with no purpose. He leaves a treasure map with Freddie and then departs, and Freddie then has to 'fess up, to get help following it! Toby isn't especially concerned and is more excited. He shares the information with Aunt Amanda, and they summon the sailor (Lemuel Mizzen) back to take them aboard his ship along with a cast of colorful characters from the neighborhood and his stories (including the Churchwarden, Mr. Hanlon who is kind of a mime/harlequin who runs a children's circus of sorts, and a Sly Old Codger).
Their ship, the Sieve, is eventually sunk by the cabin boy out of revenge for Mizzen's parrot constantly mocking his stutter, and the group is separated into two, adrift on rafts of mattresses. They encounter pirates and eventually find their way to the island on the map where their dreams come true. . . but it isn't home.
Who on earth was the audience for this book? The protagonist can't be more than six, but no six year old with stick with the entirety of this book (all 241 pages of it). It's completely fun, but Freddie is a bit too young to be of interest to older children. Fortunately other characters have their fair share of the action. Monty Python could have made a decent film from this, I think, because it has a lot of one-liners and wordplay that's done seriously. Not an especially memorable book, though, I think. Perhaps it was original in its day. Overall, I found it a rather lukewarm book. It should have been about half as long.
The Churchwarden started, and put his hand to his back pocket. "Are you as old as that?" said he.
"No older no what you be, old fat-chaps," said Speak. "You attend to your own age, and I'll attend to mine."
Full text is available at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26977/26977-h/26977-h.htm