Tag Archives: Books

The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford

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Sheila Burnford’s animal saga is a nice little story that somehow doesn’t manage to achieve greatness at any point through it’s duration. Mind you. every child should read this charming novel once in their lives, and for the most part it has managed not to age since it’s first publication in the sixties; it’s a sweetly rendered love letter to house pets and the great Canadian wilderness as well as a suitable read aloud.

Still, The Incredible Journey’ fails to be truly riveting, and I’m trying to put my finger on the reason I feel this way. The story follows an irresistible bull terrier protagonist, Bodger, and his two animal friends (a Labrador and a Siamese cat) as they brave a arduous trek across Canadian soil to find their beloved masters. There are many challenges along the way, of course, presented in episodic fashion, and Carl Burger provides lovely illustrations portraying the animals’ daunting journey.

Two film adaptations came out after the books release, a 1963 version, the more realistic one by far. and a tame Walt Disney remake in 1993, a bastardization in many ways while still remaining a relatively charming family film. People who watch the 1993 film might get a confused notion about what the book itself is about. While “Homeward Bound” (as the remake is called) applies celebrity voice actors to the animal characters, there is barely any dialogue at all in the book. The animals certainly don’t talk.

Instead of giving the animals human voices, the novel concentrates one portraying the canines and their feline companion with their animal behavior intact while still making them likable and endearing. This book is a little darker and much more serious than “Homeward Bound,” and sometimes comes off as a little frosty and distant without the voices of the animals we 90’s kids have come to expect from childrens’ entertainment.

While the book is much more mature and artistically sound, there are times when one gets a chilly vibe from the brief volume, where individual events and supporting characters aren’t focused on for more than a few pages. The main thing that supplies this book with life is the exquisite charcoal drawings, cozy and warm additions to the text.

The real strength of ‘The Incredible Journey’ is Burnford’s obvious skill writing prose as well as her ability to make the animal characters sympathetic without having them say a single word. The old bull terrier, Bodger, will win your heart with his undying loyalty and steadfast sweetness as well as his adorable love of children and particularly the unlikely bond he shares with his feline friend, Tao.

Something about this book- maybe the slim size- makes it feel a bit unsubstantial, like a sweet that you savor before it all too quickly disappears down your throat and into your stomach, leaving you hungry for more. However, it’s a book that kids and adults should like just fine and it endearing, if like the metaphorical sweetie, not quite filling.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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Esteemed poet and memoirist Maya Angelou chronicles her life from lonely, isolated black girlhood to sexual awakening and teen motherhood in this sad, poetic true-life account. Little Maya never believed much in her own self-worth, and racism was as rampant in the small community of Stamps, Arkansas, that she lived in with her Grandmama and disabled Uncle Willie as the wrenching poverty of both blacks and whites. Her unwavering sense of fatalism  forced her into the belief that she would live a brief, harsh life of subjugation before dying in a crazy dramatic way (in this sense, she is more like the modern youngster than she might think.)

But Maya (AKA Marguerite) had a  way to escape her tough circumstances- her love of books and writing, which kept her spirit strong and her mind sharp in the face of myriad staggering adversities. Through prejudice, sexual abuse, and eventually teen pregnancy, Maya not only survived, but slowly developed her sense of self and the belief that she and the African-American race deserved better than what they had been given.

Good writing is a prerequisite in an autobiography, but it also helps to have an interesting story that will grab the reader’s interest. ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ has both. Angelou retreats so far into the mind of her younger self that the book seems free of Angelou’s adult beliefs and opinions. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out how she felt about a situation at the time she wrote the book. Maya Angelou has had a fascinating, though frequently tragic life, and the prose she incorporates into the book rolls off the tongue like sweet honey.

I found the author’s own personal feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness following her rape at age eight at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend particularly heart-wrenching. No one should ever have to feel guilty for a act of sexual violence done unto them. But I was thrilled when Mr. Freeman (the name of the bottom-feeding pederast in question) was rubbed out by Maya’s mafioso relatives. Sweet justice! Of course, it would have been better if the abuse hadn’t occurred at all, but the killing of the child rapist gave me pleasure in an mostly bleak and depressing book.

The racism portrayed within these pages is shocking (the white dentist achieving a particular low,) but it makes the reader think about how far we’ve come as a society. Nowadays if someone cared to indulge in a ‘jigaboo walks into a bar’ joke they would be greeted by most with moral outrage and unlaughing silence. Back then racism wasn’t just a mindset- it was a way of life. People had never considered that blacks could be anything more than their drastically inferior dark-skinned servants,  and in many places- including the South- thinking that there might be an alternative to prejudice and hate was all too much for these white hicks to take in.

The only thing I didn’t like about this book is that it ended far too abruptly. It concluded on a hopeful note, but at the same time it just kind of left me hanging. It’s funny, a lot of the behavior exhibited by Maya’s most well-regarded relatives would be considered child abuse by today’s standards.

She just kind of laughs countless whippings and frankly psychotic behavior (for instance her stuttering Uncle Willie  threatening to burn her and her brother Bailey on the stove) off, but nowadays that kind of acting out by unhinged grown-ups would now be followed by a visit by CPS. People talk about the ‘good old days,’ where kids were hard-working and respectful and everything was more wholesome, but were the old days really that great? This book, and others, answer my question with an emphatic no.

If you like kind of slow books that love each word onto paper, rather than simply writing them in the way of popular writers, you’ll adore Angelou’s precisely, and gorgeously written memoir. And, grim as it is, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is not without it’s humor. “Preach it, Brother Thomas!” In the wake of Maya Angelou’s death the world lost a great literary voice. She brings barbed honesty and haunting lyricism into what could have been a standard coming-of-age narrative.