07 March 2011

The Phoenix Rises Again?

Yesterday the Boston Globe featured economist Ronald F. Ferguson in its “Bibliophiles” column.

He “never developed a habit of reading novels,” he said, but spoke of his childhood reading this way, with one title lingering in his memory:

I had one special summer, after second grade, maybe, when I joined a book club and they would send a book every couple of weeks. They were storybooks. One was called “The Phoenix.” I just remember the title. It was a story of one of these birds that is reborn every 500 years. That summer is the summer that I developed a love of reading.
Was the book Ferguson remembered David and the Phoenix, by Edward Ormondroyd? It’s the right vintage: the book was published in 1957, when Ferguson turned seven according to Wikipedia. It was a selection of the Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club. And the phoenix’s death and rebirth forms the culmination of the story.

Worldcat lists only a couple of other candidates from the 1950s: a reissue of E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet, and Marius Barbeau’s The Golden Phoenix, and Other French-Canadian Fairy Tales. Ormondroyd’s book stands out from those in being solidly grounded in contemporary American life.

Back in 2006 I quoted from an essay by Prof. Gerald Early, two years younger than Ferguson, about his fondness for David and the Phoenix. Once again I wonder if what I saw as a flaw in the story—the lack of specific traits for the young protagonist David—was actually a virtue for young African-American male readers in the 1950s like Early and Ferguson. They might have been able to imagine themselves in David’s shoes when few other stories were as welcoming.

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