Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Gammage Cup

Back in fifth grade, my beloved teacher Mr. Shearer-- maybe the best I've ever had-- bought every kid a book or set from one of those Scholastic book sale flier things. (Did most people get those?) I was waffling for ages, so eventually he chose for me, a two-book pack from Harcourt that featured Ginger Pie, a book about a missing dog which he had read to us that year, and The Gammage Cup, by Carol Kendall. (Missing being young and being read to is pretty close to a universal phenomenon, I would guess.) No offense to any fans of Ginger Pie but I always thought it was pretty stupid; the idiocy of the kid heroes galled me so much, as a ten year old. But The Gammage Cup, I knew right away, was special.

The book is the story of a lightly supernatural fantasy world, and a little village in particular, where a tightly regimented and conformist society is thrust into trouble, and saved from it, by a small band of outsiders. I don't want to spend too much time recounting the plot details, because this book is very much more than its plot; the occasional predictability of it is made irrelevant by its spirit, and by its simple but brilliantly realized message. "Didactic" is usually a bad word when describing books, especially books for children (I'll tell you about it sometime), but this book is didactic in the best sense, animated by an iron devotion to the two pillars of human life that cause us such controversy, the rights of the individual and the good of the community. This book is at heart a libertarian fable, and there is something utterly true about its depiction of the deadening conformity of "the way things are done." At one point, the protagonists get the chance to form a bit of the ideal society in the wilderness that we all dream of, where we can shrug off all of the expectations and petty impositions on our freedom, and be the way we are.... In the end, they have to return to save the day, and return to society, even while the book maintains its fierce devotion to the right to be different. Because we have to live together.

Adult readers, and perhaps especially big readers of genre fantasy, may be a little turned off by some of the more juvenile seeming elements of the story-- the protagonists are called Minipins, the villains Mushrooms, and if you are looking for a lot of fantasy violence, you won't find it. It is also not what I would call particularly inventive; the story, setting and characters are fairly well-worn archetypes. This is a book for children. But I think adults can enjoy it, and I still do, because of its energy and intelligence, and because of the power of its lessons.


Ian McCullough said...

You might want to check out China Mieville's YA novel Un Lun Dun. It has some nice inversions of the typical fantasy formula.

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