________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 13 . . . . February 22, 2008


The King of Argula. (The Hole Stories, Book One).

Christopher Millin.
Saskatoon, SK: Thistledown Press, 2007.
180 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-1-897235-21-8.

Subject Headings:
Fantasy fiction.
Quests (Expeditions)-Juvenile fiction.
Blind children-Juvenile fiction.
Rescues-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 4-6 / Ages 9-11.

Review by Caitlin Berry.

*** /4


There is a big tree in the front yard of the Livesay's home. This tree has no leaves, but some of its branches seem to twist their way to the moon. That is how big this tree is. Onus had a branch in this tree he climbed to when he wasn't smiling. After Isis turned purple, Onus found himself in the tree almost every day. I do not have a twin, or even a brother or a sister, but I know if I did have one who changed colours, I would probably not smile again. Onus probably would have never smiled again either; except for one day, about two months after Isis had turned purple, while he was sitting on his branch, trying hard to reach to the moon with the other branches, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

At first he thought it was just one of the branches urging him to reach higher, but when he turned, there were no branches anywhere near him, or anything else for that matter. He was alone in the tree. He was always alone in the tree. He turned around to continue to reach to the moon, and for several seconds he did reach, but again there was another tap on his shoulder. Onus turned around even quicker this time to catch the culprit. Someone said, "Boo," but no one was in the tree with Onus. No one, that is, except for Isis.


The King of Arugula begins when the story's narrator (who remains unnamed), on his way home from his uncle Sol's funeral, falls into a giant hole. The hole already inhabits a strange man by the name of Mr. Engleburt Flex who has been trapped for four days -- no one having heard his calls for help. And so, the two pass the time as only two at the bottom of a hole can: they tell stories. Or rather, Mr. Flex tells a story. He tells the tale of Onus and Twig, and their frightful adventure with the villainous Ernest Fang.

     Mr. Flex weaves the tale of Onus, a boy who is grieving the loss of his twin sister (who died while they were having a meatball eating competition), who one day sits down with his friend, Twig (the neighbor), for a bowl of Onus's mother's tomato soup. They discover something strange: every time they take a mouthful of soup, they lose their vision; when they take another mouthful yet, their vision is restored. The two finish the soup, and by mistake, leave Twig completely blind.

     After Onus's mother explains that she had made the soup from "special" tomatoes bought from a giant man with one-eye, the boys' journey begins. Onus and Twig set off to the rather fantastical town of Arugula to find the one-eyed man (named Ernest Fang), and to restore Twig's vision. On the way, they are joined by their older (and medieval torture obsessed) friend, Clay, and they ride to Arugula on Clay's motorcycle fitted with a sidecar.

     After being captured and being imprisoned by Fang, himself (a sort of moustache twirling villain), they discover that Fang's dream is to create the world's largest museum exhibit of human legs (of which he's already begun by hypnotizing people, taking their legs and replacing them with wooden ones). He grows the special vision - inhibiting tomatoes as a way to lure people back to his castle (much like he did Onus and Twig) in order to continue the process – hypnotizing people, taking their legs, replacing them with wooden ones, and sending them on their merry way.

     Although Onus and Twig (with the aid of Isis, his ghostly sister, and Clay, their rough hewn side-kick) save the day, our narrator's fate doesn't seem to be so optimistic. There is sign of a rescue from the hole at the end, but there is also a foreshadowing that things get worse for him yet. Millin leaves his ending open. As to whether the two stories (Onus and Twig's and our narrator's) intertwine in some fashion – even thematically – is yet to be discovered, for this is only book one in the series.

     In truth, it's hard to know what to make of The King of Arugula. Millin's voice is unique, and clear, and as a result, is quite pleasant to read. However, at times, his voice is so methodical and unwavering in pitch that it results in a sort of hypnotic effect (perhaps appropriately so).

     While Onus and Twig's story is amusing, one never feels worried for them, as it's written with such cheery removedness that you know they're going to save the day way before they do. As to whether our narrator, himself, is in true danger, again it is difficult to tell. Millin paints the narrator's situation simultaneously as bizarre, fantastical and tinged with the sinister but doesn't allow us enough time to fully understand the rules of the world. Moreover, we know very little of the narrator's situation at all, besides his immediate circumstances. This leaves us in genre and story-line limbo, which is fine if we are confident we know the author has a firm handle on both and will tie it up satisfyingly later. However, because of the truncated nature of the ending, this cannot be confirmed.

     That said, points to Millin for trying something new and rather experimental. He certainly creates, at times, enough intrigue that we want to read on to see how the story is resolved. Additionally, the characters of Onus, Isis and Twig are delightful (Onus and Isis's relationship is impressively touching despite its brevity), and, although oftentimes simplistic, the prose is sound, and the ideas are unique.

     Yet, Millin's work teeters dangerously on that which is, unfortunately, all-too rampant in children's literature today: authorial contrivance. Part of what makes this book unique also acts to its detriment. Millin's hand as author, in trying too hard to create something different, in trying too hard to be clever, extracts directly from the novel's heart and soul. It acts to distract us from his characters, which, he has shown, do live and breathe on their own, if he would only just let go of them.

Recommended with reservations.

Caitlin Berry is a graduate of Vermont College's Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults program. She is also a guest reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.