28 August 2006

Ormondroyd and the Phoenix

Back when Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was in cinemas, I told friends that the movie had convinced me those dinosaurs were real, but when I watched the human characters carefully I could see that they were artificial. They just didn’t speak and act like real people. I got a similar sensation from Edward Ormondroyd’s David and the Phoenix, originally published in 1957 and resurrected by the reprinter Purple House Press.

Ormondroyd is in the school of E. Nesbit, L. Frank Baum, and Edward Eager, describing fantastic creatures within the real world his readers recognize rather than setting his story in a fairyland or parallel dimension. The Phoenix and many of his compeers (such as the Eeyore-like Sea Serpent) come to life through strong personalities and lots and lots of concrete detail. Sometimes Ormondroyd even uses the Rabelaisian technique of very long lists of objects in the scene. How can we not accept such a precise image?

But I never believed in David, the boy who trips across the Phoenix on a mountainside and is taken under the bird’s giant wing. He's a blank. What was his life like before that moment? How did he do in school? Did he like sports or games, music or art? Did he build things or tell stories? Did he have a gang of pals or one or two close friends? Is he tall for his age, skinny or fat? What does he want to be when he grows up? We never really find out.

For some young readers, that blankness might have been a virtue. It let them project themselves onto David. But it also leaves us little chance to imagine him as a real person, and thus to sympathize with his larger desires and anxieties. Of course, an author can overload the young protagonist of a simple, fun adventure story with psychological problems to work through. But giving a character some individual personality and history (i.e., character) makes any story more emotionally rich.

David's family and community are, similarly, simulacra, with details chosen to make the story more exciting rather than to reflect real life. The book starts with the family moving into a new house; within about a week, that house is filled with “fruit crates” and “old boxes” just right for David to hide things behind. A neighborhood blackout brings police, fire, and repair vehicles almost immediately. The main antagonist, a scientist referred to imaginatively as "the Scientist," wants to shoot the Phoenix rather than study it; that's a poor portrait of science, even by 1957 standards, but it raises the stakes in the story.


fusenumber8 said...

This was my mother's favorite book as a child. I'm delighted to hear it's coming out in print again. A tip of the hat for the head's up.

Anonymous said...

This book does not have the charm of Time at the Top and its sequel. I think Time at the Top deserves a much larger audience!

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

TIME AT THE TOP is Edward's favorite of his books: http://noblemania.blogspot.com/2011/10/first-ever-interview-with-edward.html.