Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Pearl and the Pumpkin

After The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published, other writers for children and artists noticed. More books featuring a marriage of text and illustrations began to appear. Some even view Baum's later work as his attempts to improve on what he'd done in Wonderful Wizard. (Baum felt he did well with The Scarecrow of Oz and Sky Island, actually.)

But what about W.W. Denslow? After he and Baum parted ways, Denslow released several other picture books, and of course, none of them ever gained the popularity of Oz. However, thanks to Denslow's connection to Oz, publishers such as Dover Publications have reissued some of his post-Oz work. And one of the books they chose to reprint was clearly an intended successor to the Oz illustrator's biggest success: The Pearl and the Pumpkin.

According to Michael Patrick Hearn's introduction in the Dover edition, Denslow came up with the idea of The Pearl and the Pumpkin's plot and had his friend Paul West write the idea into a story he'd illustrate. The concept of creating a musical based on the story was also there from the beginning.

The Pearl and the Pumpkin opens on the Pringle farm in Vermont, where Joe Miller (nephew of Farmer Pringle, cousin of his daughter Pearl, meaning that there really shouldn't be a "The Pearl" in the title as much as just "Pearl") is turning the remainder of the Pringle's bumper crop of famous pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns for a Halloween party. Joe figured out how to grow healthy, large pumpkins just about anywhere, and this is his reward.

However, bemoaning their loss is the Canner (Ike Cannem) and the Pieman (John Doe, no relation to Baum's own John Dough) who wanted Pringle pumpkins for their respective businesses. During the party, a third person looking for Joe arrives: the Ancient Mariner from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, except now he just runs errands for Davy Jones and his pirates in their underwater locker. And what do the pirates want? Pumpkin pie! But since pumpkins aren't found under the sea, the Mariner wants to learn Joe's secret.

Joe at first blithely refuses to share his secrets with the three men, but Mother Carey—a wise and kind sea goddess—arrives and warns Joe that they may do him mischief if he doesn't share his secret and she gives him a whistle to summon her with.

We're already seeing Denslow's style of making characters non-threatening. The Ancient Mariner came from a poem about a pretty traumatic sea voyage, and Mother Carey was actually a goddess of sea storms. But here, the Mariner and Davy Jones and the pirates are comic characters, while Mother Carey is basically a rehash of Baum's Good Witch of the North, just now underwater. In addition, the Albatross the Mariner is otherwise famous for killing is never said to be dead, and in Denslow's illustrations, appears to be alive. But it very quickly vanishes from the story.

Getting help from the Corn Dodger (a farm sprite), the Canner, Pieman and Mariner trick Joe into wishing he was a Pumpkin-head to make him give up the secret, even though he'd already decided to tell the Mariner if he asked. The Corn Dodger works this transformation, and Joe turns into a boy with a pumpkin for a torso, a jack-o-lantern head, and vines that make up the rest of his body. As a result of being "a pumpkin head," he also can't remember the secret to growing his pumpkins. The Corn Dodger can't do another transformation until the next midnight, and he can't work magic if he's captured, and the Canner has turned his eyes from pumpkins to the fine corn that makes up the Dodger's body.

Meantime, the Mariner and the Pieman decide that if Joe can't remember his secret, taking him to Davy Jones will surely scare him into doing it. And if that still doesn't work, well then the pirates will have pumpkins for their pie at least.

Denslow, I thought you didn't want to scare children, and here you are with a story where a boy is transformed and threatened to be eaten, and a fairy is threatened with being processed into canned corn. But yet these disturbing themes are present all through the story.

Using magic, Pearl and Joe are transported by the Mariner and the Pieman to Davy Jones' locker. From here, the story turns into a long chase as Joe tries to stay ahead of the pirates, using help from Mother Carey. The Corn Dodger tries to stay ahead of the Canner and is also protected by Mother Carey until the Canner finally catches him. The story reaches a climax in Bermuda where Joe's body is baked into pies in a hotel kitchen and the Canner cuts up the Corn Dodger and puts him in a giant can to be presented to the President of the United States.

Mother Carey is able to recover Joe's head and this is enough for the Corn Dodger (who emerges whole from the can) to restore Joe. (It's mentioned the pies at the hotel are thrown out, because it's only now that eating food made from a transformed person becomes gross...) Joe shares his secret and we are told the world will never experience a pumpkin shortage thanks to this!

The story is light, fun reading and actually pretty enjoyable. But when viewed critically, it lacks a clear, active protagonist. Pearl and Joe are both pretty passive and do little to move the plot along. It's mainly the characters who wrong Joe who do that. Another odd thing is how easily people take to the idea of fairies living amongst them.

And as I said, the idea of making the story into a musical extravaganza was part of the early planning, and it's easy to see how the idea was in mind, just like another Pumpkinhead-starring book released the same year: The Marvelous Land of Oz. In Pearl, all of the major players are introduced early on and if you're familiar with comedy stage productions from that era, it's easy to see how much comic running around is already in the book. And sure enough, the story was made into a musical, and like Marvelous Land's first adaptation The Woggle-Bug, it was a flop.

Perhaps The Pearl and the Pumpkin won't appeal to more casual Oz fans, but those interested in more of Denslow's work should check it out for a fun but weird story.

Hugh Pendexter III added Denslow and West's Davy Jones' Locker to his Wooglet in Oz, meaning that Pearl could be considered an expanded universe Oz story if one wants, though it does raise the question of why people in America are just fine with fairies and otherwise presumed mythical people popping up.


Nathan said...

This and John Dough both have the element of apparently non-evil people (okay, the Canner and Pieman are jerks, but they're hardly psychotic) wanting to eat sentient foodstuffs.

Jared said...

People wanting to eat John Dough felt less disturbing as we knew he was only ever a giant gingerbread man imbued with a magic elixir and not someone human who had been transformed. We wanted him to survive, but it felt less wrong for someone to eat gingerbread.