Friday, October 6

Homer Price

By Robert McCloskey
Viking Press edition 1943
149 pages

There's this place called Centerburg which has always appeared just off the map from our collective unconsciousness. It's a past where the town fathers and other leading citizens gather at the barber shop while they let their children mind the diner and bring petty criminals to justice at the end of a gun. It's where ten year old boys could take the family cart and mare into town on their own, or tame a skunk for a pet with just a little milk, an innocent place where the idea of factory-produced homes is welcomed progress and a contest to see which old codger owns the largest ball of string is prime entertainment for a week. And in the center of it all, whether witness or participant, is Homer Price.

As one of Robert McCloskey's forages outside the realm of the picture book (Make Way for Ducklings, Blueberries for Sal), Homer Price takes the form of fanciful memoir, the kind of stories written of a young man's retelling of his Ohio home town. Naturally Centerburg doesn't exist, but plenty of Midwest towns like it did exist in the early part of the twentieth century and the book breathes a homespun charm not unlike a Frank Capra movie or a Thornton Wilder play.

Reading this in the late 1960's there was still a sense that these small towns still existed, not yet gobbled up by big cities. I had no doubts that just outside of my home town of Los Angeles there were dozens of these Centerburgs dotting the landscaped edges of the desert and foothills of the Sierra's. More exciting was the prospect that out there, somewhere, a man was in need of a ten year old boy like me to mind the diner while the donut machine ran amok pumping out thousands of the golden cake rings begging to be eaten. That a boy could tame a wild animal made perfect sense to me as I had once tried to convince my parents how (but not why) I could keep a pet squirrel in the closet under the stairs. Never mind that: we lived in a city and rarely saw squirrels; that the closet had no light in it; that the only nuts I was able to gather (in anticipation) were from eucalyptus trees. All that mattered to me was if Homer Price could do it, so could I.

The collection of stories in Homer Price are homespun and sly at times, with only one real dud in the bunch. McCloskey's attempt to modernize The Pied Piper of Hamlin almost threatens to destroy everything leading up to it, but in the final story he regains sure footing and brings together every major character from previous stories into a grand finale.

rereading it recently I can't help but wonder about the black people of Centerburg, only hinted at in these stories. They appear twice -- when a poor boy finds a diamond bracelet in a donut (and is rewarded with the princely sum of $100) and in the town celebration when the Baptist choir sings out a sort of folk-blues commentary on the town's history. It's both an accurate and sad reflection of the times that towns like Centerburg existed with poor minority communities that lived on the outskirts and peripheries. I wouldn't doom this book to the type of drubbing that Twain's boyhood tales receive but it would be nice to get an inner city version of Homer Price to balance things out. Perhaps a Harlem-set version of the 30's and 40's that celebrated the same spirit of boyhood adventure minus any sort of overt social message or literary revisionism.


Unknown said...

O brother. You read a fine childrens book from the 40s and you are fixated on race...

Geez I think I'll point out that global warming is not addressed nor is there a Chinese character mentioned in the book either...

david elzey said...

Hardly fixated, dear Bird (is it Mr.?), merely noting the book as a reflection of its times and the possibilities open to a flip-side version, should someone be bold enough to attempt a period piece in the same spirit.

As for classics children's books that need retrofitting: Mike and his Steam Shovel could use a warning on global warming, and the Five Chinese Brothers could be made less stereotypical in dress and appearance. (I am, of course, kidding here about messing with the classics.)