Most books need some introduction. Some need a little, some need just a bit more. Some need far too much. Some need none at all.
James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks falls under the last two categories. Either it is passed off without a word, or the recommender spends so much time explaining the engaging little book that the reader may as well have already read it. Perhaps that is part of its charm. (Certainly this is why I let the book introduce itself.)
However, before I go into all the charm and wit of Thurber’s book, I want to discuss the criteria for choosing a children’s book on this blog. This blog is for, as I have stated, “challenging” books. What defines a challenging children’s book? Clearly not the length in this case (124 pages in positively huge type), nor the writing itself. I’ve been reading this book since I was a very young child. The vocabulary of a book isn’t necessarily a determining fact, though in The 13 Clocks Thurber makes up enough words that one has to gain the meaning from context, which is a wonderful challenge . . . for children. So do I determine challenge by a child’s standards? If so, this book would count at least on one level. Ultimately, after thinking about it, I feel like that approach is inappropriate. Any book is challenging for someone. The question is, why is this book challenging for me? If I cannot answer that it is, then the children’s book does not deserve a place in weekly line-up (though I do have the option of doing an OP book review after having finished the weekly book).
Thankfully, I have an answer as to why this book is challenging for me. I will be including this answer for all Young Adult and Children’s books, partially for the reader’s benefit, partially for my own (don’t want to cheat myself, you know?). Usually, I would include it at the end, but after all this fuss, I’ll include this one now. The 13 Clocks is challenging for me because, after literally hundreds of readings, in many ways it is still ineffable. I penetrate the surface story, but I know that there is so much I am missing. It will take at least another quarter of a century for me to feel like I have a good understanding of this book.
Okay, onto the review itself.
Perhaps the best introduction to this book, since I am going to try, is the wonderful book flap that was written for it. I do not know who wrote this book flap, but I will say that I wish that this person was still around. Book flaps these days have a dull sameness to them. This person was an artist! (Question: do you know of any other masterful book flaps? I’ll check out the book just to read it/them!)
How can anyone describe this book? It isn’t a parable, a fairy story or a poem, but rather a mixture of all three. It is beautiful and it is comic. It is philosophical and it is cheery. What we suppose we are trying fumblingly to say is, in a word, that it is Thurber.
There are only a few reasons why everybody has always wanted to read this kind of a story, but they are basic:
Everybody has always wanted to love a Princess.
Everybody has always wanted to be a Prince.
Everybody has always wanted the wicked Duke to be punished.
Everybody has always wanted to live happily ever after.
Too little of this kind of this is going on in the world today. But all of it is going on valorously in The Thirteen Clocks.
I cannot disagree with the four assertions. I always preferred to be the savior than the saved. I naturally like punishing the wicked archetypal character. And, as ridiculous as it may seem with all my pragmatism, I have ever believed in happily ever after. I think that book flap is a perfect introduction. Then again, the newest version published (after several sad decades out of print), has an introduction by Neil Gaiman. I am seriously considering buying another version of the book just for that introduction. Having never read it, I will declare this book flap perfect with room for tandem perfection in introduction form.
That being said, the Foreword by Thurber himself describing the process of writing the book is well worth the time and pages. Anyone who is willing to admit to “several grueling conferences” with a four-year old deserves the honor of having their forward read.
And then there is a book. Loathe as I am to overuse any word, I have to use “perfect” again. If there ever was a perfect villain, it is the Duke of Coffin Castle (although you don’t get that name until the very end, my apologies for the spoiler). Unlike most books, which begin with the heroes (perhaps the villains get a short preface), the Duke debuts in the very first chapter. This is one of the best image-invoking descriptions I have ever run across:
[The Princess] was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales. He was six feet four, and forty-six, and even colder than he thought he was. One eye wore a velvet patch; the other glittered through a monocle, which made half his body seem closer to you than the other half. He had lost one eye when he was twelve, for he was fond of peering into nests and lairs in search of birds and animals to maul. One afternoon, a mother shrike mauled him first. His nights were spent in evil dreams, and his days were given to wicked schemes.
Isn’t that just marvelous? 😀 Not only is it that, but it is a comfort to me that the two best introductions I have found to this book are exactly what they should be: the book flap and the first para of the first chapter. I adore it! I think this book is the reason that I don’t like melodrama: Thurber is such a master of it that any melodrama that is not as finely balanced and paced as this just doesn’t measure up. Also, in a continuity that doesn’t seem over-done or terrible, he begins the next paragraph with, “Wickedly scheming . . .” As you might have guessed, the quote that titles this blog is the Duke’s. What a wonderfully self-aware dastard!
As you may have noticed, there are some embedded rhymes in the text. They are all over and there’s a rhythm to them. Sometimes Thurber uses them to high-light an important part, sometimes to just point out something. I tend to think Thurber is just pointing out the summary of the Duke with the dreams/schemes rhyme. The Duke is eeeeeeeviiiiilll. ‘Nuff said.
There is so much I could talk about, but I hate to ruin such a wonderful book for you. This is Thurber’s second children’s fractured fairie tale (the first is The White Deer, also highly recommended), and it is just about the best thing he ever wrote. I say that having a love-affair with all his works. So, I think I have to point out in bullet form a few more things, or I will over-introduce this book. I do hope you discover it on your own. It’s clever, charming, quixotic, and just gets better as you get older.
- The female lead, the Princess Saralinda, actively participates in her own saving. Plus, she’s a brunette! Score for the non-stereotype.
- The means to saving Saralinda comes via another woman, who is neither a young temptress nor an old crone. For a book written in 1950, it is remarkably modern-day friendly.
- The hero is neither stupid, nor helpless, but is willing to accept help.
- The magical help, the Golux, is labelled, from the start, as a “mere device” and later called an “ex machina.” LOL and score for the classical education!
- There are some truly amazing tongue twisters and phrases for helping with diction.
- It is not just a fairy story, or a parable, or a poem, but all three. Children can learn each aspect and be far more prepared for the different types of literature in school.
- The book teaches the importance of living for Now and not in Then, despite how frightening Now can be.
This is the first book I remember my father reading in voices. This is the first book I remember my father reading to me. He read it to me when I was sick, when I was down, when I asked, and when I didn’t. It is the family classic, and it deserves that honor. It is one of the two formative books of my childhood. It began my love affair with words. All educational roads in my life, both formal and recreational, trace back to here.
I think I wish to close by leaving you with the words of the Golux to the lovers as they part, for I think they are incredibly wise:
Keep warm. Ride close together. Remember laughter. You’ll need it even in the blessed isles of Ever After.
Our endings are there, but we decide if they are happy. Yes, this book has taught me so much about life and I fully expect it to teach me more.