The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine by Mark Twain and Philip Stead was a Christmas gift from my family, received after hinting to anyone within earshot that I’d like a copy for my library. When I learned that my favorites, Phillip and Erin Stead, were collaborating together again, and this time on a book based on an unfinished Mark Twain tale, well, that fact lodged pretty tight in my book-hungry brain. I picked it up this week after making a modest start on it Christmas Day, and this time I decided to use it as a vehicle to bring all of my children, ages thirteen down to four, into the read-aloud fold all together once again. We read it in two installments, starting on the day Steady Eddie returned to work after a long and busy Christmas break (sob!), and finishing this morning as a part of our first Fun Friday of the new year. Its long-ish picture book format makes it ideal for a range of ages and stages.
Let me qualify my review by saying this: I love Mark Twain, and as I’ve already confessed, I love the Steads. Thus, I can’t say anything bad about this book at all. I found it completely delightful, if completely nonsensical. One has to skip ahead and read the editor’s note at the end of the book to know how the book came to be, ensconced as it was in the Mark Twain Papers archive at the University of California, Berkeley. No spoilers here, but I will say that it comes as a surprise to me that every single solitary word that an author as famous as Mark Twain ever wrote hasn’t already been analyzed to death. Of course, Twain never actually wrote this story. He actually just jotted down part of a rough outline of a story he told his daughters. (His outline is reproduced on the book’s endpapers.) Philip Stead took the story and fleshed it out, interrupting the story itself with an imagined conversation between him and Twain in his writing cabin on Beaver Island, Michigan. I love this aspect of the story–imagining a curmudgeonly Twain arguing with Stead over some finer detail is quite amusing to me.
The story itself is about a meek and sort of sad boy named Johnny. Johnny lives with his scoundrel of a grandfather, about which the Twain/Stead duo has this to say:
Johnny had no other family. And to say he knew his grandfather would be an optimism at best. And since a great many of the world’s tragedies, big and small, were first thunk up in the minds of optimists, we will do humanity a favor now and stick to the cold facts:
Johnny’s grandfather was a bad man. (16)
(This tickled me so much, and it really further blurred the authorial attribution for me: this sounds so Twain-ish!) Poor Johnny’s only consolation in life is his chicken, Pestilence and Famine (yes, one chicken with two names). Then his grandfather sends him to town to sell Pestilence and Famine, which he does, only he sells her to a mysterious old woman for some equally mysterious seeds. This exchange leads to a string of crazy nonsense, including talking animals, a diminutive king with an ego disproportionate to his size, argumentative dragons, and a man-eating tiger. Whew. The cherry on top of this imaginative mishmash are Erin Stead’s illustrations. If you’ve read A Sick Day for Amos McGee (my review here), you know just the sort of illustrations that carry this crazy-but-somehow-gentle story along. (If you haven’t read it, DO!) The whole thing is both a wonder and a curiosity. In my mind’s eye I can absolutely see Twain concocting this crazy tale for his daughters, inspired by a page ripped from a magazine. The Steads were the right team for the job. I’m glad to have it in my library. (Doubleday, 2017)