CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 37 . . . . May 25, 2018
Old Misery is a unique book that brings to mind Indian mathematician and librarian, Raganathan (1931), who once declared, Every reader his or her book. Every book its reader. Replete with wicked problems and wicked humour, this quirky book will find readers in every school from Canada to Florida.
Old Misery is an example of modern fantasy based in folklore, one likely informed by the Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve. Visually engaging, it is an account of how and why misery came into the world. When the book begins, the storyteller, Old Misery, is seated in a high-back chair, looking squarely (bug-eyed and wide-jowled) at readers. We immediately discover that she is a no-nonsense, crotchety and garrulous elderly woman who has fallen on hard times (economically, emotionally, psychologically, and socially) in the winter of her life. She commands us to listen to her tale of woe. Lamenting, she says, "ain't got two pennies to rub together… [and] "nothing except old Rutterkin", a cat which, she describes as "worthless as a dog with fleas" (p.1). To use metaphors from the four humours of Greek medicine, Old Misery, as depicted, is a cross between a melancholic and phlegmatic personality with a bleak and sullen outlook on life—a collection of negative stereotypes rooted in patriarchy. And like the pen and ink crosshatchings throughout the book, she is stitched together in a self-assured, frustrated bundle.
When the story begins, the major source of Old Misery's frustration is pillaging—"wicked stealing" of her "[g]ood eating apples" by children, adults (including the vicar), and animals alike. The bile she carries has long soaked in a brine of frustration because she "can't get around as [she] is used to." Her luck changes when an errant old soul—a man—shows up and asks for food. She proffers some in a thrifty manner. This archetypal rewards her kindness by granting her a wish—"anything at all" he tells her. With zeal, she says, "There's but one wish for me, mister, and it's this here: whoever I catch stealing apples off my tree will get stuck to it until I decide to let them go!" When Old Misery ambles up the hill the next day, she finds the culprits stuck to the tree as promised by the old man, and she proceeds to "give them some tongue…"
Ayto's illustration of the tongue lashing is splendid in all its cartoony, humorous glory, depicting Old Misery as an oversized head, in granny cap, with enlarged spectacles and a missile-like tongue. An excellent page for Middle Years students, generally known to appreciate iconoclastic humour (art/images and linguistic exaggeration); and so, too, the adjacent page which illustrates the pilferers falling from the apple tree in what our focalizer declares as an "anshum-scranshum!" style. News of Old Misery's powerful revenge quickly spreads, and a period of peace and bountiful apple harvests prevails until Mr. Death, a triangular-headed, serpentine, skinny, macabre "fella", shows up to claim her.
Puffed up with the magical power bestowed on her earlier, Old Misery explains that she is "ready to go with [him] at anytime." Then, with a gleam in her eyes, and in the interest of self-preservation, she artfully asks Death for a favour: the picking of a "sweet little apple" so as to have "one last dreary taste." Mr. Death – serpent, grim, marbly-eyed, in tall hat, morning coat, and breeches – assents. Hearing this, Old Misery stares out slyly at the reader in cunning triumph.
As we move to the climax of this quizzical tale, we see Mr. Death, in his wavy way, trying to locate the "reddest and the sweetest" apple for the life-loving woman. Seeing him as a puppet on a string, she instructs him to move in every which way until she declares, "Yep, that's the one!"
However, "when it came to getting down, Mr. Death found that HE WAS STUCK FAST!" He "dangled" in the tree through four seasons until Old Misery showed up with an offer—a foolish Faustian bargain.
"Mr. D." she says, "You can come down if you let me live forever—yep. FOREVER…and you can do the same for old Rutterkin here, too." In the next scene, a double-page spread, Mr. Death's quandary dawns on him, and he becomes enraged. "He had no choice but to grant [Old Misery's] wish" but not without a fateful and terrible contingency: "he gave three (that famous number!), snorts loud enough to make a hog sick and shouted, "YOU OLD BEEZUM! MAY YOU HAVE PERPETUAL ITICHING WITHOUT EVER SCRATCHING!" The curse applied to Rutterkin too!
The elderly woman instantaneously discovered that Mr. D. kept "his word", and, as the verbal conclusion informs, this is "why Misery will always be found in this here world…" Visual story telling dominates from there on. We see Old Misery and her cat trapped in perpetual itch without the ability to scratch. It eventually overtakes and overwhelms them in an endless hole of "ITCH!"
Not for the faint-hearted, Old Misery is a cautionary tale about desires/wishes and bargains. It is also about restraint in the use of power, reasonableness, and the futility of trying to escape Death. But, honestly, can we blame Old Misery for trying?
The book's grim humour is achieved through the clever use of sarcasm and witticisms—biting and ironic remarks – that authentically conveys the personality of Old Misery (e.g., "Oh, he was a nice cup of tea, he was, wondering if I had any extra food lying about – as if I did!"). Equally effective, are the visual semantics created by Ayto's black and white cartoon style illustrations along with pen and ink crosshatchings throughout the book (e.g., Old Misery's exaggerated giant head, jowly cheeks, and Mr. D's gaping mouth when he "gave [the] three snorts and pronounced the curse on her). In a predominantly black and white book, the economic and symbolic use of red—the apples for instance—provides the only variation in hue throughout the text. As evidence of the book's nuanced, semantic design, red is featured prominently and dramatically on the board and flyleaf of the paratext.
Ideally suited for pupils between grades 4-8, Old Misery is likely to have a strong following among fans of lampoon, sick, and macabre humour. Also, it invites theoretical/ideological readings. Feminism, for instance, would be an apt theoretical framework for exploring the intertextual allusion between this story and the famous narrative about Adam and Eve since both feature females captivated and condemned by red apples that somehow position them to bring misery into the world. Why is this so, and why is this storyline recuperated?
All considered, Sage and Ayto's well-designed, written, and illustrated picturebook packs a hefty intellectual, verbal, visual, and humorous punch! However, feminism and other critical discourses are needed here.
Barbara McNeil is an Instructor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina in Regina, SK.
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