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Williamson, Ethel.

Illustrated by Pat Robertson. St. Catharines (Ont.), Moonstone Press, 1987. 24pp, paper, $4.95, ISBN 0-920259-13-8. CIP

Ages 4 to 7
Reviewed by Patrick Dunn

Volume 16 Number 1
1988 January

When her parents are killed in an accident, Astra goes to live with her grandmother in an isolated northern mining town. An accomplished seamstress who earns her living making clothes for the women of the town and who finds her eyesight beginning to fail, she is pleased to teach Astra her craft. The child learns quickly and is soon able to make dresses almost as well as the old lady. Sadly, one day Astra's grandmother is simply too weak to leave her bed and it falls to Astra to complete the oustanding orders. Though she manages to do this, the grandmother's regular customers prefer to wait until she recovers rather than enlist Astra to do new work. With no other source of income, things look bleak until an odd-looking little man, Peppo by name, comes to order a suit for his master. Reluctant to entrust the child with the task, he promises to place an order if a suit made for him proves her ability. Working throughout the night she completes the garment, and when Peppo returns he acknowledges her skill. Producing a key which unlocks the mysterious chest in their living room (heretofore, Astra's grandmother has been extremely secretive about this chest), Peppo withdraws rich velvet and large pieces of white fur. Out of this material he commands her to fashion the suit seven days hence. Working feverishly she manages to finish on time. Exhausted by the long hours of work, she falls asleep and when she awakens, the suit has disappeared with silver coins in its place. Hearing sleigh bells and the drumming of tiny hooves on the roof above, she finally realizes who the wearer of the suit is.

If all this sounds rather improbable, pedestrian and highly contrived, believe me, it is. To begin with, the accompanying publisher's blurb suggests that, "This is an enjoyable Christmas story," yet the only hints of Christmas (aside from the aforementioned sleigh bells and hoof beats) are the holly leaves which adorn the front cover and an extremely generalized picture of Santa and his reindeer-drawn sleigh in the last illustration of the book. Aside from this, far more numerous, far more significant inconsistencies abound. For example, though the story opens with the mention of the very recent death of Astra's parents, this traumatic event never again figures in the lives of the characters. Surely, such a shattering experience would affect the child's emotions in some way, particularly during the Christmas season when family gatherings are so much a part of the festivities. As far as the grandmother's relationship with the townsfolk is concerned, we are told how extremely busy she is always kept sewing for women who regard her most highly. If this is so it seems rather remarkable that these same individuals would simply abandon her when she most requires help.

More significantly, Astra herself is simply not a credible character. Many of the illustrations suggest that she is a fairly young child, yet she toils endlessly to complete the various garments, often working throughout the night. While it is quite true that such feats of endurance among the young occur quite frequently in folk and fairy tales, very little, if anything at all, suggests that this is the type of imaginative landscape dealt with here. If fantasy is what the author intends, she fails to provide an ample accretion of tantalizing detail or pattern of genuinely intriguing events to suggest that the magical or the fantastic inhabit Astra's world. Unfortunately, the "treasure chest" and Peppo seem forced rather than fabulous. Furthermore, if Astra is bright enough to learn to sew so quickly and so well and can barely contain her curiosity about the chest, it seems most unlikely that she would express no curiosity or suspicion whatsoever about the wearer of a suit made from velvet "red as ripe cherries" and fur trim "as white as the snow falling outside."

The illustrations match the wooden, stilted text perfectly. While there is nothing inherently unattractive about black and white, here the illustrations seem simply poorly executed, lacking vitality, character and any humour or warmth whatsoever. One glaring fault involves the fact that Astra seems much older in some illustrations than in others. Perhaps most annoying is the fact that the narrative voice often changes from paragraph to paragraph and, at times, within paragraphs. This is all very confusing and simply adds up to nothing but a poorly conceived, disastrously executed picture book. All in all, an exceedingly drab, numbingly unimaginative, stilted concoction. Definitely not recommended!

Patrick Dunn, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C.
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