Grades 3 - 6 / Ages 8 - 11.
Far away, and on the other side of time, there lived a baker and a baker's husband. They worked hard every day of the year and made a fair living, but they thought they would be happier if they had a child. So one day Baker said to her husband, "Tomorrow let us close the shop early and go up into the Dancing Mountains to the shrine of the Goddess, and ask her to send us a child. I shall take a gift to her so she will know exactly what we want."The opening sentence, quoted above, comes close to saying it all. Its indicators suggest that this story will be in the form of a fable/fairy tale, it will be set in China, and it will have a definitely feminist slant! All of these indicators ring absolutely true. After their visit to the shrine of the Goddess, Baker says to her husband that she hopes the child "will be clever enough to be lazy, and lazy enough to be clever", and, of course, she turns out to be just that. Her parents are totally permissive, and so, instead of being forced to do chores around the bakery, she is allowed to think and experiment and create. Thus she invents the abacus, a prawn trap, saffron buns and an early version of Easy-Off - any one of which would be worth more to her parents than the dubious help of a six-year-old sweeping the bakery!
Then the baker woman set about making a baby doll out of dumpling dough, round and soft, full of creases and dimples. She made a girl doll.
All does not go entirely smoothly, however. Drought strikes the neighbourhood, Baker's husband dies, Clever-Lazy and Baker set out for the city where they have a cousin, but Baker dies en route so that Clever Lazy is forced to fend for herself - which she does, putting on puppet plays on street corners, improving Kite Maker's designs, and so forth until eventually she achieves a workshop (and a helper husband) as Inventor for the Emperor. Inventing fireworks, however, was a mistake. The war-like applications of gunpowder were all too obvious to the Emperor and the visiting potentate, and so Clever-Lazy and her husband run away, back to the Dancing Moutains and a life which could have been bucolic bliss in true fairy-tale fashion. Before they could live happily ever after, however, Clever-Lazy had to come to terms with her need for independence and her need and love for her husband and child which she does, appropriately, at the shrine of the Goddess. Thus the story comes full circle.
As a condensed narrative, this book sounds a little too balanced and calculated, but, in fact, it works well. Clever-Lazy is a believable character, although being, like Kipling's Mariner, of "infinite-resource-and-sagacity", she is not someone with whom it is easy to identify - a bit too clever, and not quite lazy enough! Still, her ingenuity and integrity make this a very satisfying adventure, one which I enjoyed very much indeed.
Mary Thomas works in a pair of elementary schools in Winnipeg and has found that fairy tales have universal appeal.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS FOR THIS ISSUE - MARCH 27, 1998.
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