Song and Dance Man

Song and Dance Man by Karen Ackerman, illustrated by Stephen Gammell, 1988.

A grandfather likes to tell his grandchildren stories about when he was a young man and he was a vaudeville performer, a “song and dance man.” Back before the invention of television, live vaudeville performances were a major form of public entertainment in the United States during the late 19th century and early 20th century. A typical vaudeville performance in the United States was like a variety show with short skits, music, singing, dancing, comedy routines, juggling, magic acts, ventriloquists, and various other stunts, acrobatics, and miscellaneous acts.

When his grandchildren come to visit, he likes to take them up to the attic, where his old costume pieces and tap shoes are stored, and he gives them a private performance of his old vaudeville act.

He sings songs, plays the banjo, tells jokes, and also does small magic tricks for the children, like pulling coins out of their hair.

The grandfather loves performing for his grandchildren, and they love seeing him perform. The children can tell that he misses the “good old days” when he was a performer, although he says that he wouldn’t trade the time he has with his grandchildren for his life in the past.

In a way, the fact that the children’s grandfather was a former vaudeville performer dates this story. In the early 21st century, children’s grandparents are mostly people who were born in the mid-20th century, probably between the 1940s and 1970s, depending on the age of the grandchildren and how old the grandparents were when they were born. By the mid-20th century, vaudeville had already gone out of fashion, declining in popularity during the late 1920s and early 1930s, around the time when sound movies were first being produced, although some earlier vaudeville performances actually included short silent films among the other skits and acts. The book talks about television ending vaudeville’s popularity, but it was really movie theaters that were the main competition for vaudeville. Some movies produced during the 1930s and into the mid-20th century carried on some of the vaudeville traditions, like certain types of comedy and song and dance routines, as former vaudeville performers, including Fred Astaire and Bob Hope, transitioned into movie performers. Vaudeville elements show up frequently in Shirley Temple movies, and the Road series of movies with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour also features many call-backs to vaudeville variety acts, which is part of the reason why they’re so episodic, light on over-arching plot, and punctuated with song and dance routines. The people who were adults when vaudeville was still big would have been the parents or grandparents of modern, early 21st century grandparents. I first saw this book when I was a child, and my grandparents would have been among those old enough to remember vaudeville. The book was published in the late 1980s, a little over 30 years ago. The children in this book would be from my generation, about the age I was when this book was new, not the current 21st century generation of children. Even so, it is a fun glimpse at the past and can be a good opportunity to introduce children to the idea of changing tastes in entertainment and occupations that used to exist but either don’t exist now or have taken different forms in modern times. Modern grandparents could still use this book to talk about family history and memories of the past.

This book is a Caldecott Medal winner. The book is available to borrow for free online through Internet Archive.

The Halloween Tree

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury, 1972.

A group of neighborhood boys want to go trick-or-treating on Halloween night, but they’re upset because it looks like a friend of their, Joe Pipkin, won’t be coming with them.  When they get to Pipkin’s house, he seems ill and is clutching his side.  His friends worry that he’s sick, but he valiantly reassures them that he’ll be fine.  He sends them on, telling them that he’ll catch up with them and that his costume will be great.  Specifically, he tells them to “head for the House” which is “the place of the Haunts.”

The house that Pipkin is talking about is the creepiest house in town.  It’s large, so large that it’s hard to tell how many rooms it has.  The boys knock on the creepy-looking door knocker on the front door, and a man answers the door.  When the boys say, “trick or treat,” the man says, “No treats.  Only—trick!”  Then, he slams the door without giving them anything.

Not knowing what else to do, the boys walk around the side of the house and see a large tree, filled with jack o’lanterns.  This is the Halloween Tree.  The strange man they saw before rises up from a pile of leaves and scares the boys, giving them the “trick” that he promised them earlier.  He finally introduces himself as Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud.  He begins talking to them about the history of Halloween and asks them if they understand the real meanings behind the costumes they have chosen.  The boys admit that they really don’t know the meanings behind their costumes, and Moundshroud points off into the distance, calling it, “The Undiscovered Country.”  He says that out there likes the past and the history of Halloween and that the boys will learn the answers if they’re willing to go there.  The boys are interested, but they say that they can’t go anywhere without Pipkin, who promised that he would come.

Pipkin suddenly appears in the distance, by a dark ravine, holding a lit pumpkin.  He says that he doesn’t feel well, but he knew that he had to come.  Pipkin trips and falls, and the light in his pumpkin goes out.  From a distance, the others hear him calling for help.  Moundshroud says that something bad has happened.  Pipkin has been taken away to The Undiscovered Country by Death.  Moundshroud says that Pipkin may not be taken permanently but perhaps held for ransom and that, if they follow Pipkin to The Undiscovered Country, they might be able to get his soul back and save his life.

Moundshroud has the boys build a kite that somewhat resembles a pterodactyl, and they use it to travel into the far distant past.  The first place they arrive is Ancient Egypt, where the boys learn about mummies and how the Ancient Egyptians viewed the dead.  They see Pipkin as a mummy, being laid to rest in a sarcophagus, surrounded by hieroglyphs, telling the story of his life.  (Or, as Moundshroud says, “Or whoever Pipkin was this time around, this year, four thousand years ago,” hinting that Pipkin has been reincarnated before and what they are seeing during their journey are his past lives and deaths.)  Pipkin calls out to his friends for help.  Moundshroud tells the boys that they can’t save Pipkin now, but they’ll have a chance later.

They continue their journey through time and around the world, seeing glimpses of Halloweens past in Ancient Rome and the British Isles, where they learn about druids, Samhain, and witches.  Moundshroud describes how the Romans supplanted druidic practices with their own polytheistic religion until that was eventually replaced by Christianity.  All along, they can still hear Pipkin calling to them, and he seems to be carried off by a witch.  As they pursue him, Moundshroud teaches them the difference between fictional witches and real-life witches, which he characterizes as being more like wise women, who don’t really do magic.

From there, they go to Notre Dame to learn about gargoyles.  They continue to see Pipkin in different forms, even as a gargoyle on the cathedral.  Pipkin tells them that he’s not dead, but that he knows that part of him is in a hospital back home.

In Mexico, the boys experience Dia de los Muertos and learn about skeletons and a different kind of mummy from the ones they saw in Egypt.  They find Pipkin, held prisoner in the catacombs by the mummies, and Moundshroud tells the boys that the only way to save him is to make a bargain, both with him and with the dead: each boy must give one year from the end of their lives so that Pipkin may live.  It is a serious decision, for as Moundshroud says, they won’t miss that year now, being only about 11 or 12 years old, but none of them knows how long they will actually live.  Some of them who were destined to die at 55 would now only make it to 54, and as they reach the end of their lives, the year will seem that much more important to them.  Even those who live longer will still want every day they can possibly have.  However, each decides that he is willing to make the sacrifice because, without that sacrifice, Pipkin has no chance, and they can’t just let him die.

They make the bargain and are soon returned home.  When they go to Pipkin’s house to check on him, they are told that Pip is in the hospital because he had his appendix taken out, just in time to save his life.  At the end of the story, Tom (who is the leader of the boys through most of the story), wonders silently who Moundshroud really was, and he hears in his mind, “I think you know, boy, I think you know.”  Tom asks him if they will meet again, and Moundshroud says that he will come for Tom many years from now, confirming that Moundshroud was Death all along, which was why they had to make the bargain with him.

I saw the animated movie version of this story long before I read the book, and it really gave me the creeps!  Moundshroud is creepy because he is kind of two-faced.  On the one hand, he seems somewhat helpful in helping the boys to find Pipkin and teaching them about the history of Halloween, but on the other, he does not admit to the children that he is Death until the very end, that he is the very thing that they need to save Pipkin from, and that they can only do it by offering a sacrifice of years from their own lives. Although it does occur to me that Moundshroud may not be quite as two-faced as he seems because Pip’s illness and potential death may not have been planned by him but simply the fated situation for Pip, and Moundshroud might have just taken it upon himself to provide a way for Pip’s friends to save him in the least painful way. By not telling them that a sacrifice of part of their lives would be necessary until the very end, after they had come to a better understanding of life and death in the history of Halloween, he may have made the choice easier for them to make. Also, he never says exactly how much time they bought for Pip with their sacrifice. The implication is that Pip is now free from his early appointed death date and will now live a full life, similar to what his friends will have. The exchange does not seem to be an even one, a year for a year, with the children needing to decide how many years they will donate to Pip. Although the kids still don’t know at the end how many years each of them will live, it seems that none of the rest of them is in danger of dying in childhood, and they will all live for many more years.

I wouldn’t recommend this book for young children (it still gives me the creeps, and I’m in my 30s), but it is interesting how they take a journey through the origins of Halloween. The book and the movie were somewhat different, partly because there were more kids in the group in the book and partly because the group of kids in the movie also had a girl in a witch costume. In the book, the kid in the witch costume was also a boy.

Both the book and the animated movie are available online through Internet Archive.

The Bassumtyte Treasure

BassumtyteTreasureThe Bassumtyte Treasure by Jane Louise Curry, 1978.

When young Tommy Bassumtyte’s parents died, he went to live with his grandfather. However, his grandfather is now dead, and he is living with his 92-year-old great-aunt, who is in a wheelchair, and her 72-year-old daughter, who has recently had her driver’s license revoked due to her poor eyesight. Although the pair of them have taken good care of Tommy, neighbors have become concerned that they will not be able to do so for much longer because of their age and failing health. Rather than see Tommy sent to a foster home, they decide that he must go to the man who Tommy learns should really be his legal guardian, a distant cousin also named Thomas who lives in the family’s ancestral home, Boxleton House, in England.

The elder Thomas Bassumtyte, who should have taken Tommy when his grandfather passed away, has also since died, but his son, also named Thomas, agrees to take him. Tommy is quickly shipped off to England before there can be a custody hearing in the United States about him because the relatives fear that some official might try to prevent Tommy from being sent out of the country. Tommy is eager to go because he remembers fantastic stories that his grandfather told him about Boxleton House. The current Thomas Bassumtyte also lives there, although the place has become rather run-down, and he fears that he will not be able to keep the place much longer. Thomas was a mountain climber, but he was injured in a fall and hasn’t been able to work much since. He tells Tommy that the two of them might have to move when he is fully recovered and can do more work for the Foreign Office, but Tommy loves Boxleton House from the first moment he sees it and wants to stay.

According to the lore of Boxleton House, a distant ancestor of theirs hid a treasure there, but no one has been able to find it. If young Tommy and Thomas can find it, it would solve many of their problems, and they would be able to keep the house and restore it. All young Tommy has is the mysterious rhyme that his grandfather told him and the strange medallion that his great-grandfather brought with him when he went to the United States in the late 1800s. Thomas tells him that the treasure was supposedly hidden by a distant ancestor of theirs who was fond of riddles, called Old Thomas.

The Bassumtytes were secretly Catholic during the reign of Elizabeth I. Old Thomas was alive then and had a son called Tall Thomas. Tall Thomas traveled frequently and was mysterious about the places he went. One night, he returned to Boxleton House with a young baby, who he said was his son. He had married in secret, and his young wife had died shortly after giving birth. Tall Thomas also brought her body back to Boxleton for burial. However, that wasn’t Tall Thomas’s only secret. Although he remarried, giving his son a stepmother, and lived on for a number of years, he was eventually executed for smuggling messages for the captive Catholic queen, Mary, Queen of Scots. The family was stripped of its noble title and only barely managed to hang onto their house and land. If there was a treasure hidden during this time, it was probably something that the Bassumtytes were afraid would be confiscated by the queen’s soldiers as punishment for the family’s disloyalty or something that Mary had given to Tall Thomas to hide for her.

As Thomas tells Tommy more about the house and the family’s history, he points out Tommy’s uncanny resemblance to Small Thomas, Tall Thomas’s son, as shown in an old painting. Tommy feels a strange connection to Small Thomas, and begins seeing and hearing strange things. An older woman comforts him in the middle of the night, having him recite the same rhyme that his grandfather taught him. A small painting later reveals that this woman was Small Thomas’s grandmother. She appears to Tommy other times, giving him a glimpse back in time and clues to solve the puzzles of Boxleton House.

It is only when Thomas accepts the advice of a family friend who works for a museum that they come to understand the full significance of their family’s heirlooms and the hidden treasure. The treasure may not be quite what the Bassumtytes have always believed it was, but then, the Bassumtytes themselves aren’t quite who they always thought they were, either.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive.

Magic Elizabeth

MagicElizabeth

Magic Elizabeth by Norma Kassirer, 1966.

Young Sally’s parents are away on a business trip, so she’s been staying with Mrs. Chipley, but now Mrs. Chipley has a family emergency to tend to. Mrs. Chipley’s daughter is ill, and Mrs. Chipley needs to go and help her with her children. While Mrs. Chipley is gone, there is only one other person for Sally to stay with: her Aunt Sarah, an elderly woman who Sally doesn’t really know. Aunt Sarah moved to California when Sally was just a baby, and the only reason why she has returned is that she has decided to sell her old house.

MagicElizabethArrival

Sally is a rather shy girl. She’s uneasy around Aunt Sarah, who is obviously unaccustomed to spending time with children, and Aunt Sarah’s creepy cat, Shadow. The house is old, chilly, and filled with strange things. However, Sally is enchanted with the bedroom that Aunt Sarah gives her and the portrait of a girl and her doll that hangs on the wall. The girl looks very much like Sally herself, and Aunt Sarah tells her that the girl was also called Sally and lived in that bedroom as a child, many years ago.

MagicElizabethKitchen

Fascinated by this earlier Sally and her beautiful doll, modern Sally decides to try to find the doll. Although her aunt tells her that she shouldn’t go poking around in the attic, Sally can’t help herself. She finds a trunk with Sally’s name on it full of girls’ clothes, just the right size for modern Sally to wear. There is a doll in the trunk also, but it’s not the same doll as the one in the portrait. When Sally reads the diary in the old trunk she learns the reason why. The doll in the picture, Elizabeth, was lost many years ago, when the earlier Sally was still young. As modern Sally plays dress up with the earlier Sally’s old clothes and studies herself in the mirror, she finds herself taken back in time, seeing the house through earlier Sally’s eyes. In the past, it was a busy and happy household with parents, an elderly aunt, earlier Sally, Sally’s little brother, and Sally’s pet cats.

A short time later, Aunt Sarah wakes modern Sally on the floor of the attic, and they assume that it was all a dream, but this look into the past changes Sally’s feelings about the house and her aunt’s cat, who suddenly seems friendlier and reminds her of the mother cat she saw in the past. Aunt Sarah also seems a little less stern as they discuss earlier Sally and her lost doll. Aunt Sarah says that no one ever saw the doll again after it disappeared on Christmas Eve all those years ago.  Earlier Sally had put the doll on top of the Christmas tree, like an angel, and after the family finished singing Christmas carols, the doll was gone.  They could never figure out what happened to her.  Modern Sally thinks that sounds very sad and wants to investigate the mystery of the missing doll, although Aunt Sarah isn’t very enthusiastic. She says that if the doll could be found, it would have been found long ago, and the earlier Sally has long since grown up and no longer needs it. Although, oddly, Aunt Sarah remarks that the earlier Sally had always thought that Elizabeth was “a little bit magic.”

Modern Sally continues to look for the doll anyway and also continues having moments when she sees the past as the earlier Sally did many years ago, especially when she looks into the mirror in the attic. One day, she invites a neighbor girl named Emily over, and while the two of them are looking around the attic, Emily finds Elizabeth’s old doll bonnet. The girls are excited because they now know for certain that Elizabeth is still in the house, waiting to be found. The girls are running out of time to find her. If Aunt Sarah agrees to sell the house, it will be torn down to build apartments. But, Sally falls ill with the flu, and it isn’t until Shadow gives her an important clue that Sally realizes where Elizabeth must be.

This book is currently out of print, but it’s one that I’d dearly love to see in print once more!  It is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive.

My Reaction and Spoilers

Adults reading this story will probably realize before the children do (spoiler) that Aunt Sarah herself was the earlier Sally, the one who lost her favorite doll many years ago. “Sally” is a nickname for Sarah, like “Molly” can be for Mary and “Peggy” can be for Margaret, although any of those names can also be used by itself.  (In the Middle Ages, it was common for popular names to get different variations of nicknames by changing one sound in the original name and then changing one more sound in the first nickname to get another one, and sometimes even moving on to change one more sound to get yet another nickname that was very changed from the first. Those nicknames that look significantly different from their original names are a holdover from that practice, having lasted even into modern times.  John/Jack works on the same principle.  Fun fact!)  When Aunt Sarah grew up, she stopped using her childhood nickname, but the name was passed on to modern Sally.

At first, modern Sally sees her stern aunt as being witch-like, all dressed in black and fussy, but gradually, the memories of the past, her new relationship with young Sally, and the finding of her slightly-magical doll soften her. There are hints of Aunt Sarah’s youth in the attic, although Sally at first dismisses thoughts that some of the lovely things there could have belonged to her cranky old aunt because she has trouble thinking of her aunt as once having been young, pretty, and sweet. However, part of the theme of the story is that everyone was young once. Aunt Sarah is is bent and achy from arthritis, giving her the witch-like appearance and making her short-tempered at times. She also hasn’t been around children much for years, and part of her fussiness comes from forgetting what it was like to be young herself. Modern Sally, with her resemblance to her elderly aunt, and Elizabeth the doll both work their magic on her, reminding her what it was like to be a young girl and helping to revive a more youthful spirit in her.

I was happy that (further spoiler) Aunt Sarah decides not to sell the house after all, not just because she and Sally will get to spend more time together, but because old houses like that are rare these days. I like the idea that the old family heirlooms in the house will now be preserved, like the sleigh out in the old barn and the melodeon, a type of small organ.  I liked the way the book described the melodeon making musical sounds as people walk past it because of the way the floor boards move.  I also loved the description of the gas plant that Sally sees in earlier Sally’s memories.  If you’d like to see what a gas plant looks like when it’s lit, have a look at this video on YouTube.MagicElizabethMelodeon