Monday, March 11, 2019
'The Magic Pudding' by Norman Lindsay
The adventures of those splendid fellows Bunyip Bluegum, Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff, the penguin bold, and of course their amazing, everlasting and very cantankerous Puddin'.
This kids' classic is a bit like an Aussie version of The Wind in the Willows, and it's my choice for the Africa, Asia or Oceania section of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. It was published in 1918, the year of my grandmother's birth. Bunyip Bluegum is a fashionable young koala who sets out to be a gentleman of leisure, until he gets too hungry. He befriends Barnacle Bill the sailor, and Sam Sawnoff the penguin, who own a magnificent pudding named Albert, with the ability to replenish himself so they need never go hungry again.
Albert is a 'cut and come again' pudding, who enjoys offering slices of himself to everyone. For a change of flavour, you whistle twice and turn his basin around. I read one reviewer's complaint that you only ever seem to get steak and kidney, jam roly-poly, apple dumpling or plum duff. My instant thought was, 'Heck, what does she expect from a pudding?' That lady strikes me as a reader with no sense of wonder. He sounds pretty super-duper and worth the fuss to me.
The nefarious pudding thieves, Possum and Wombat agree, and concoct all sorts of sneaky mischief to steal Albert. Then the trio has to be just as crafty in getting him back again. There's a lot of punching and name calling, which probably delighted the good little children of early last century.
Talking about the target audience, it has some very mature concepts and expressions for a kids' book. For example, the wordy Bunyip Bluegum defends the truthfulness of his poetry with this line. 'The exigencies of rhyme may stand excused from a too strict insistence on verisimilitude, so that the general gaiety is thereby promoted.' Wow, I think several adults would have trouble getting their heads around that one, let alone middle school students. I'd love to think 9 to 12 year-olds would be willing to nut it out with their dictionaries, but do you think it's likely from our 21st century bunch? Are books like The Magic Pudding handy tools to stretch our kids' minds, or just relics from the past still being foisted on a generation no longer in the same head space? We'd never find such tricky sentences in modern stories for the same age group, but I wish a few would slip through, just to see how it would go over.
I think some of the low-key attitude take-aways were the coolest feature of this story.
Bill is easily brought to the brink of despair several times, which makes it harder for his mind to latch onto problem solving solutions. But Bunyip's more optimistic nature makes him a more pro-active thinker, and he often saves the day. It's interesting to see an author from as far back as Norman Lindsay suggest to young readers that choosing our moods may help us switch on or off our creativity.
Albert is a cranky pudding with a sassy mouth, but the friends are willing to cop a bit of guff from him, considering the benefits he provides. He's my favourite character. I love his wise little wrinkled face. He strikes me as a chap who knows full well that people are just using him for what they can get. Even when the pudding owners consider that they've 'saved his life', it's all a matter of indifference to him. He seems just as content with Possum and Wombat, who are after all doing just what the trio of heroes do, which is eating him.
It's such a silly tale, but Norman Lindsay's illustrations, fantastic verse, and emphasis on the chilled, laid-back aspects of Australian life give it its special edge. There's plenty of relaxing over pudding slices and billy tea. 'If you don't sit by a campfire in the evening, you have to sit by nothing in the dark, which is a most unsociable way of spending your time.' Then morning turns out to have its own unique charm. 'It's the best part of the day, because the world has had his face washed, and the air smells like Pears soap.'
The little band's chosen lifestyle is wandering along roads, indulging in conversation, song and story. And their happy ending is removing to a secluded spot and settling down to a life of gaiety, dance and song. Sounds pretty good to me.
The ending is odd by today's standards. The cast give no indication all through the story that they know they are fictional characters, but then Norman Lindsay has his main duo finish this way. (Totally in character for both of them, I might add.)
Bill: Here we are close to the end of the book, and something will have to be done in a tremendous hurry or else we'll be cut off short by the cover.
Bunyip: The solution is perfectly simple. We have merely to stop wandering along the road, and the story will stop wandering through the book.
What do you think? Touch of brilliance or verging in the realm of too cute? Every reader will have to make up their own mind. I can honestly see both sides.
(The photo of me with the Magic Pudding gang was taken at the Story Book Trail at Aberfoyle Park, not far from home; a walk I recommend if you can.)