CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 16. . . .December 17, 2010.
Mary Withers, reteller. Illustrated by Hanne Lore Koehler.
Edmonton, AB: Tutkam Books, 2010.
24 pp., hardcover, $21.95..
Kindergarten-grade 3 / Ages 5-8.
Review by Dave Jenkinson.
Dan Finn was an ordinary fellow until he fell into the water near Pooka Hill. He swam and swam for dear life, until he reached land. He looked around. The moon shone bright as day. As far as he could see, there was only bog. A very, very big bog. So he sat on a stone and rested his chin on his knees.
According to the copyright page, Pooka Hill is "an adaptation of the fairytale 'Daniel O'Rourke' by W.B. Yeats." Having read the original story by the Irish writer, poet and playwright, W. B. Yeats, who won the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature, I can attest that Withers's adaptation, while omitting details and introducing others, loosely follows the plot structure of the Yeats's original telling of the folk/fairy tale. Of course, this retelling, which is directed at the young, omits the critical information that Dan Finn (aka Daniel O'Rourke) actually fell into water because he was quite drunk. Also missing is any explanation of the title's significance, especially the word "pooka." How is a child or the average Canadian parent supposed to know that a pooka is an Irish spirit that can assume various animal forms, including that of an eagle? In particular, a pooka apparently does nasty things to inebriated individuals who cross its path.
Knowing that latter bit of information would explain the significance of Dan's wife's statement on the book's closing page as she douses him with a pail of water: "Imagine falling asleep on Pooka Hill, Dan Finn," she said. Dan/Daniel, of course, had not "fallen" asleep, but, in fact, he had passed out, and his swim, flight to the moon on the eagle's back, his encounter with the Man in the Moon and his subsequent fall from the moon before being rescued by a flight of geese which, in turn, is followed by Dan's final fall into the water (actually his wife's pail of water being tossed on him) had all been a Pooka/alcohol induced nightmare.
While the text makes no mention of Dan's age, even without the illustrations, youngsters would figure out that he's an adult as the last page introduces his wife. Hanne Lore Koehler's illustrations reveal Dan to be middle-aged with greying temples and a wrinkled face, not the typical adult character who "stars" in a book directed at the very young. Koehler's paintings occupy each recto while the facing page is filled with a text that is not broken into paragraphs. At times, Withers' text and Koehler's illustrations contradict each other. At one point, the text reads, "A dark shadow appeared creeping closer and closer. The shadow landed right in front of him, It was an eagle." The accompanying illustration shows Dan sitting on a rock with a red-winged Blackbird perched next to him on a branch or bullrush stalk. Now, one could make the argument that the Blackbird is just the pooka in another animal guise (but, only if the reader had been told what a pooka was). However, even that explanation is inadequate given the specificity of the text. In another instance, the text reads, "'Put your hand out and catch my leg. I will fly you home,' said the old gander." Again, the text is quite specific - Dan is to use one hand, but Koehler's illustration shows him hanging on to the Canadian goose's two legs and with both hands.
Koehler's paintings are bright, colourful and filled with action, but they are not sufficient to rescue a thin, confusing story. As an aside, my Internet search for more information about the illustrator led to a site where the book's original paintings were for sale. There, amongst details about the paintings was the information that Pooka Hill is ostensibly a Newfoundland version of the Irish tale. In Yeats's version, the geese were flying to Arabia, but in this version "we are flying to Newfoundland. It is a very decent place, you know, but rocky."
Dave Jenkinson, CM's editor, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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