First, in a day or two I will be adding a new sidebar with links to some of the other places I write for online and in print. As of now this will only be The Phoenix (serving Phoenixville, PA) book reviews I do once a week. This way you can get even more of my wonderful opinions on literature. Ahem...
Secondly, I will continue to do a few more "Lost Books" past the monthly change. For the rest of July I may do a couple of random book reviews, or may just provide links to the Phoenix articles. Most likely I will take a couple of weeks off and start fresh in August with a new month/theme.
In this downtime I welcome any submissions or book recommendations.
So, now to the book at hand.
First by way of random introduction, I will tell you how I came upon this book. I found this children's book at a used book sale, held in the grimy bowels of a conservative Pennsylvanian newspaper. The sale was horrible. The selection was mediocre (Lee Iaccoca, Dan Brown, John Grisham, Nora Roberts, Passages et al), the weather was abysmal and the man running the sale was sloth. The eighty or so year-old woman assisting him did all the heavy lifting while he ate a bucket of KFC.
I was there to find books for the bookstore. I left, more or less, with this book alone.
I would happily do it over again.
The Ladder of Rickety Rungs by T.C. O'Donnell. Illustrated by Janet Laura Scott. Prefatory note by Padraic Colum. P.F. Volland Company. Chicago. 1923 (original publication date - due to the book's extreme scarcity I believe it was the only issue as well). Out-Of-Print. Buy (if you can find it) The Ladder of Rickety Rungs here and support the Devil's Accountant.
I have said that Mr. O'Donnell has added to the mythology of sleep and dream; no story teller can do any better than add to a mythology. That half hour that is so full of reverie, the half hour before bed-time that children have their best remembered dreams in, has become enriched by the journeyings and adventurings of those who from the Mountain of Glimp climbed up into the Moon upon THE LADDER OF RICKETY RUNGS."
-Padraic Colum, from his Prefatory Note
If the bold words of the noted poet, scholar and lead figure of what became known as the Celtic Revival are not to be taken at superficial value. O'Donnell's wonderfully imaginative fairy story is, in my estimation, one of the finest tales left unheard.
This is a children's book. It is not a gateway work, like Tolkien's The Hobbit and neither is it a true novel written for the young, like Kenneth Graham's masterpiece, The Wind In The Willows. The Ladder of Rickety Rungs belongs to older literatures, like the fairy tale and fable.
Published in the 1920's and beautifully illustrated in deco watercolors, the book draws upon much older stuff to tell its tale. Delighting in nonsense humor and invented onomatopoeia (Slumb as the name of King Blink's sleepy butler), the tale wastes no time on the explanation of how, but rather dwells upon questions of when and where.
The story, like all fairy tales, simply can't be bothered with worrying about how the two Folk (us people of the world are known as Folk) children are given special consideration by King Blink, lord of the Land of Nod (just past the Land of Dusk). Nor does O'Donnell's tale fret too much over the politics of the fairy people versus the shaodow people (who inhabit the Land of Dreams). No, in traditional fairy tale format, which Colum points out in his preface, the story merely seeks to charm and conjure scintillating colors and lurid situations.
The cover illustration you see above, is an image the ladder itself, connecting Mount Glimp with the Moon itself.
Scott's illustrations capture a certain "otherworldliness" by using archaic images, bright colors and larger than life creatures to populate the pages. The people of the Land of Nod are drawn with something like Japanese clothing and features and yet do not at all live in anything resembling Japanese houses, castles or palaces. The ships that cross the sea proudly display bright sails and almost Chinese designs, yet the ships themselves clearly resemble more Nordic lines and the warriors bourne upon them wear the mail armor and carry shields resembling Norman conquerors.
Most fairy stories require a notion of past times, whether as a time for the tale to occur or as a form of digression which the author uses to more fully develop the mythology behind the tale at hand. Thus is the case with tales King Blink tells to the two Folk children, Wandell and Sue. He tells them of the battles he fought against the aggressive Folk warlord, King Tyrant the First (leader of the Norman horde described above). He also tells them of how the world of Folk learned to sleep and in turn how dreams came to exist among them, two things that apparently were not always the case.
The Ladder of Rickety Rungs is a simple tale, told well and with great imagination. There are many, many points of silly humor and fantastic imagery that should be available to parents and children alike. As the great Padraic Colum said, this is a tale that adds to a tradition of mythical lore, and that alone should warrant its place at bedside for generations past its own.
It is a great shame that a delightful tale is unavailable, especially when the "market" has trended towards imaginative tales for the last decade or so. This book is incredibly scarce and it ought to be in every kids section in the English speaking world.
I am away from my camera and scanner right now, but sometime this week I hope to put up a few of the illustrations so that you can see how marvelous they really are.