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justice_turtle ([personal profile] justice_turtle) wrote in [community profile] readallthenewberys2013-06-24 08:20 pm

Newbery Honor: The Pigtail of Ah Lee Ben Loo (John Bennett)

I have an interlibrary loan! ...I can only assume from the title and what I can see of the front cover that this is another glowing example of early 20th century chinoiserie, like Shen of the Sea. Because cultural appropriation always makes for happy kiddie fun times, am I right or am I right?

(Huh. Maybe I've had this the wrong way round. Maybe a snarky writing tone doesn't make for more interesting liveblogs; maybe if you liveblog terrible books long enough you inexorably develop a snarky writing tone, like it or no. ;P)

Anyway. ONWARD. And, uh, downward? Certainly not upward. *dry grin*

* Okay, even for chinoiserie the endpaper, showing a Western-style helmeted knight charging a dragon, is kind of... well, startlingly Western. Okay then.

* The blurb from the original book-jacket's front flap, now pasted opposite the title-page, assures me that the short-stories in this collection - republished from children's magazine St Nicholas - are "inimitable" and "astonishingly clever", and that "This is the book to buy for your children." I am dubious. Dubious, I say, sir. *side-eyes William Rose Benét, the reviewer, whoever he is*

* The title-page informs me in an almost totally illegible font that this book's full title is The Pigtail of Ah Lee Ben Loo, With Seventeen Other Laughable Tales & 200 Comical Silhouettes, by John Bennett, Author of "Master Skylark", Etc. The blurb told me the author is also the illustrator. The title is surrounded by a selection of the Comical Silhouettes: many are vaguely Chinese-y, but I also spy Robin Hood, a pirate, and other figures in Western costume of the last 500 years or so.

* The dedication, even more illegible, seems to be "For Susan".

* Here's the Table of Contents. Well, at least they're not all faux-Chinese; the first page of the Table of Contents only shows eight of the eighteen Laughable Tales, but after the titular story they seem to run from the Middle East through Olde Englande and Ireland (at least, I have to assume "The Proud Miss O'Haggin" is intended to be Irish) to the United States and back to England. This should be... interesting. ;P

* Yes, it's a royal mishmashery all up in here, with the second page mentioning "The Persian Columbus", "Fritz the Master-Fidler", "Ben Ali the Egyptian", and "How Cats Came to Purr" in quick succession. But the last story is called "How It All Ended", so I speculate there's some kind of frame-story going on around all this. O_O

* Oh, good grief. The chapter head for "The Pigtail of Ah Lee Ben Loo" shows, in silhouette, a stereotypical Chinese man doing laundry in a large kettle, and his long braided pigtail of hair serves as the clothesline on which is hung the title-banner. Moreover, there are Chinese-style columns of calligraphy on both sides; I can't tell at all if they say anything real, not being familiar with any form of Chinese language, spoken or written. :P Who would have thought liveblogging Newberys would want such a varied skill-set? O_O

* A-ny-way. We plunge then into a poem... oh, my word, such a poem. "In the reign of Hi-kik-i" -- I'll eat my hat, I'll eat both my hats, if this is not meant to be pronounced "High kick I". Because Chinese names always have to mean something funny when transliterated into English, don't they? ;P

* Anyway, in the reign of High-kick-I, there lives a baker named "Li-Ching-i-Chang-Ching", whose daughter is famed for her beauty. She isn't (thank all the gods of literature) described as yellow, but "her feet were so small when she toddled at all, They made little round holes in the ground". And her name is "Ting-a-Ling". :P

* Ah Lee Ben Loo, "a poor laundryman, worthy and wise" - I note the very American ideal of the Poor But Hardworking hero who will, of course, marry above his station and inherit his father-in-law's riches, in a sort of reverse Cinderella arrangement - is in love with Ting-a-Ling. *cringes*

* Anyway, he serenades her, she is also in love with him and drops rose-petals to him from "high in her window"... one guess before I turn the page: the gentleman's eponymous pigtail will play a Rapunzel-esque role in uniting the lovers, hey?

* Do traditional Chinese houses even have upper-level windows or balconies? Wiki's page on traditional Chinese architecture claims that traditional Chinese buildings have "less than 3" stories and that the number of stories, size of a house, etc, were regulated according to the owner's social class, but neither assertion is cited. But they sound probable, so I don't know if a baker - even a rich one like Li-Ching-i-Chang-Ching - would have such a fancy house as the one described. *sigh* Analyzing even one of these Newberys really thoroughly would take a whole term paper's worth of extensive research on many unrelated topics.

* Across the road lives "a mandarin wicked and old", because in American literature of the period - unlike in actual traditional Chinese stories - the people of higher social class are always wicked and plotting to ruin the happiness of the lower-class people. Which *koff* is a perfectly legitimate storyline, and I could even support telling it in this sort of quasi-allegorical manner, setting it in a Foreign location, if it was being told by anyone who might get in trouble for "Down with the Man!" propaganda otherwise. But somehow I doubt that Mr John Bennett writing for St Nicholas magazine is really on the cutting edge of protest literature, right here. *very dry grin*

* Anyway. Where was I? The mandarin loves Ting-a-Ling, but because women in our mythological China here don't have to make arranged marriages, Ting-a-Ling's love for Ah Lee Ben Loo must be overcome in order for the mandarin to marry her.

* Ah Lee Ben Loo's pigtail is fifteen feet long, and as shown in the chapter's illustrated header, he uses it as a clothesline, because somehow that works in this world. O_O

* Anyway, so the mandarin happens to know of an ancient law condemning any Chinese subject whose pigtail is longer than the king's. (Not the emperor's. This China doesn't seem to have an emperor.) Anyway, the mandarin measures Ah Lee Ben Loo's pigtail while that gentleman is busy doing laundry, and then heads to the palace to fetch "an officer grim to accompany him" - remember, this is all still in verse, with rather clever internal rhymes and a complex end-rhyme scheme - and, long story short, puts Ah Lee Ben Loo in the dungeon.

* Then the mandarin sends to Li-Ching-i-Chang-Ching to demand Ting-a-Ling's hand in marriage. But Ting-a-Ling, distraught over how Ah Lee's pigtail was his downfall, swears never to marry "a man with a queue", which presumably includes all Chinese men and especially the mandarin; instead she floats out to sea in "a little green boat" (not specifically pea-green, but did anyone familiar with that poem not think of that? ;P) and sings a sad song as she floats away.

* And as she floats under the window of the "dungeon" - is it even still a dungeon if it's high up in the air? - anyway, as she floats under the window, Ah Lee Ben Loo smashes the window-bars with a convenient "blue ginger-jar" and climbs down by his pigtail. Which he then cuts off with a knife, having tied the end of it to the bars... so they float somewhere else together and get married, and Ting-a-Ling does not have to marry a man with a queue. ;P


* I don't think I can even address any of that. My brain hurts. What did I just read.

* Uh. Next story? The next story is "The Astonishing Story of the Caliph's Clock".

* "It was morning in the ancient city of Chunder-abad-dad." I deduce that none of the stories in this collection is going to feature real research in any way whatsoever.

* The Caliph is at breakfast. He eats the last of the soft-boiled eggs. The Vizier, who has been reading the morning paper, is unhappy that none are left. The Caliph scolds him for not coming to breakfast on time, because clearly a Caliph and his Vizier live exactly like Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson only with more divans and carpet-slippers.

* Caliph Holmes and Vizier Watson have an argument about timekeeping: the hourglass is cracked, the sundial doesn't work when it's cloudy, the water-clock was emptied into the goldfish bowl during the last water shortage (on which the goldfish died anyway)... I can't tell if either of these guys is supposed to be sympathetic. The Caliph is snippy and the Vizier makes excuses.

* Arrives at the palace a "wandering Yankee peddler" -- who is at least described just as stereotypically as everyone else in the book so far. "He wore a pinch-backed coat, a bright green hat, had long, elastic legs, white spatter-dashes, and an air of disconcerting superiority." I think I've read about this guy in other books, haven't you? :D I propose that Mr John Bennett should have left China and Asia alone, and written snarky commentary solely about American vagaries.

* The peddler is selling clocks. ...please, Mr John Bennett, why did you not just write about Americans all the time? This peddler's spiel about the Daylight-Savings Plan he sells in addition to the clocks is absolutely hilarious. (Admittedly I am a softy for Daylight Savings snark, having grown up in Indiana which only adopted DST a few years ago.)

* So the Caliph and the Vizier - and the Secretary of the Treasury, who suddenly showed up in order to glump over the price of the cuckoo-clock they bought (it cucks on the hour and koos on the half-hour) - "begin at once to save daylight" and to "keep up with the times". ^_^ All the sundials in town shall be set by that clock, and the clock's time is the legal time in the city; no other method of timekeeping shall be considered.

* I should probably note here that this was probably an extremely topical story when written, since it was then ten years since the US had originally adopted Daylight Savings Time; most of the US had promptly dropped DST after World War I ended, but New York had kept it for more convenient trade with London, and other cities followed New York. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh website has a very biased document produced on the ten-year anniversary, explaining how awesome DST was and why it ought to be kept and expanded throughout the country. The story I'm presently liveblogging shows the other point of view. ;-)

* Returning to the city of Chunder-abad-dad, we get a long passage about how happy the city was before the Caliph decided to muck things up with his new clock. "The poor were not yet needy enough to consider their poverty a disgrace. The beggars, having nothing to lose, were entirely content." Suuuure. You believe that can happen if you want to believe it, Mr Comfortably Wealthy John Bennett, you. You certainly aren't alone.

* Anyway, speaking against the new clock is TREASON and all that sort of stuff. But the court astronomers are uneasy about changing up the sundial to match the Daylight Saving clock, because it might mess up the astronomical balance of the world, or something like that. Once again, I can't tell what side we're supposed to be on, or whether this author is simply making fun of everything that comes within his purview.

* The Caliph winds up abolishing the Great Sundial entirely, so as not to joggle the balance of the universe by resetting it.

* And then the Caliph gets worried when dusk comes an hour late in the evening, because of course his (perfectly accurate if made to sound as silly as possible) explanations of Daylight Savings Time didn't actually get through his thick skull. Because this is a Laughable Tale! It wouldn't be Laughable if anybody was consistent in it. CLEARLY. ;P

* And because this is a Laughable Tale, it doesn't stick to the truly annoying facts about Daylight Savings Time to make its effects. Instead, the cheap clock runs faster and more fasterer, so fast that it rings noon before the sun has risen the next day, and the Vizier comes to the conclusion that the balance of the universe is upset.

* He does also deal with the complications of having only the big cities on Daylight Savings Time, as the case then was, but... messing up the clock just takes away the whole point of the story. It annoys me. :P

* The city is so upset on the question of time that all references to Time - once upon a time, the good old days, procrastination is the thief of time, etc etc etc - are deleted by law from the books and from conversation. The sundials have to be constantly reset to keep up with the spinning clock. Commerce from outside the city is totally disrupted. None of which were actual consequences of Daylight Savings Time as it stood in 1928, so I am not only disappointed in the author's failure to work with what he had, but kind of distrustful of him for exaggerating the bad consequences of a topical matter in a children's story. You can't be too careful what ideas you put into kids' heads about topical matters; you'll terrify them or raise them to make ridiculous political decisions based on what they think they know. *frowns*

(I am one of those people who strongly disapproves of "kidding" children young enough to take you seriously. But that's not really relevant right here, I think.)

* We hear again and again in different ways how much things are messed up, how people struggle to keep up with the ever-faster clock, etc. "The lower sort of persons held a violent pleb-i-scite. They thought it was a riot; but it was a pleb-i-scite." I had to look up plebiscite, which actually refers to a direct vote by all the people on a matter, as opposed to a vote by members of a legislature or parliament. For reasons I don't understand, the "lower sort of persons", after smashing some things up riot-fashion, actually hold a vote, but when they count the ballots it turns out that instead of voting on the new clock, they all voted against taking baths?

* I'm on page 45. This guy's writing style is SO TIRING. Maybe these were Laughable Tales to somebody sometime, but to me they're just weird.

* Anyway, everybody falls asleep of a sudden, except the Grand Vizier can't sleep because the Caliph keeps bullying him specially about keeping up with the clock. Then a merchant arrives at the gates of the town from far Samarkand. He manages to wake up the Vizier, and they hold a conversation about what time it is by the sun. The Vizier brings the merchant into the palace and shows him the clock.

* At this moment the clock runs down, its innards break, and its hands spin around wildly and then stop. The Caliph wakes up, cranky, but the merchant starts yelling about "A miracle!"

* The miracle, once the Caliph gets him to explain it, is that the clock has stopped with its hands pointing to twelve, "the hour of prayer" (that is, one of the five times of Islamic prayer). The next two or three pages contain the merchant's voluble explanation to the Caliph about how the stupid infidels run by clocks that go faster and faster, but the wise Muslims go by Allah's time as shown in the heavens, and now even the infidel clock has acknowledged Allah's time. So everything is hunky-dory.

* The merchant is made Chief Astronomer and given the Vizier's seat at table. Everybody sings and dances and is happy that time is running properly again. And there is a Moral! Which takes up a whole page. O_O

* The Moral is, that the people of Chunder-abad-dad are happy again because they neither know nor care what time or even what day it is, distrust all timekeeping devices, and never hurry about anything. "The Knowledge of Time is the Beginning of Trouble!" reads a motto over the palace gate, and again "A Quiet Hour of Ancient Faith is Worth an Age of Restless Reason".

(I am trying to imagine a devout Islamic city in which nobody knows or cares when it is time for the five prayers of the day, or when it is Friday, the holy day of the week, or when it is Ramadan; or in short, a traditional Middle Eastern city in which nobody studies or cares about the great Middle Eastern science of astronomy. *headshake* Why on earth was this book put on the Newbery list? Did the librarians take it unironically? I mean, I can see how very, very US-centric the various "morals" and "happy endings" are -- but they have no depth, nor any meaning, and they certainly don't actually bear any relationship at all to how things really go in the countries they're supposed to take place in.)

* You know what? I took a break to let my brain recover, and then I flipped forward, and "The Persian Columbus" begins with the "renowned Caliph Haroun Al Huck El Berri" discovering from the newspaper that Columbus says the earth is round, a thing which none of his Persian advisers and mathematicians know... and I am just done. DONE DONE DONE. I don't like this guy's sense of humor and I don't care to give this book another chance.

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