This is a very Canadian one. It’s Canadian in so many ways because it’s written by Bob Munsch and illustrated by Gilles Tibo and the story is about Ireland, the original homeland of so many Canadians, or ancestors of Canadians today. That’s why I’m writing about it here today, on St. Patrick’s Day. I want to give a little bow to the day, and so, to do honour to the saint, I’m writing about the giant who fought with him and the child who gently mediated between them, as told in a book you’re going to have a hard time tracking down: Giant: or Waiting for the Thursday Boat. (That’s an AbeBooks link for you– the easiest place to find this book.)
This is a perfect St. Patrick’s Day story: it’s not preachy or silly and there’s no bloody huge shamrocks anywhere in sight. Instead, it’s a story about knowing who you are, understanding others, and getting along with each other. St. Patrick isn’t perfect in this story– except that he’s a perfect saint. The giant, McKeon, isn’t perfect, either– except that he’s a perfect giant. And, in the story, they have to learn this, about themselves and each other, and, once they do, they can be reconciled.
But what is the story? I’ll give you an overview since it’s so hard to find, and St. Patrick’s Day is the perfect day for storytelling, anyway, as I think Synge would agree.
McKeon, the giant, has gotten angry for the first time in his life. St. Patrick has been throwing the snakes, elves, and other giants out of Ireland, and they were McKeon’s friends. McKeon decides to confront St. Patrick, and off he goes. St. Patrick puts up church bells, and McKeon tears them down, until one day all the church bells are gone and St. Patrick warns McKeon that God is angry and will be coming on the Thursday boat. So McKeon goes to wait for the boat. First, a little fishing boat with a little girl in it comes in. McKeon asks the girl if she’s seen God, because he wants to pound Him into applesauce.
“I’ve never seen God pounded into applesauce,” said the little girl. “I think I’ll stay and watch,” and she sat down beside McKeon.
Well, I think you know who she is, don’t you? But McKeon doesn’t. So, then three other boats come in succession: each bears a man richer and more powerful than the last, but none are God. McKeon is disappointed, but the little girl tells him,
“Mr. McKeon, […] it looks like God is not going to fight. You’re the world’s best giant and even God would have to agree with that. Why don’t you stop pounding people and go back to being friendly?”
Well, McKeon agrees, since he never liked being angry, anyway.
The next day the little girl tells him that St. Patrick has gone to heaven and is throwing out all the giants and elves and snakes and filling the place up with church bells. McKeon picks up the little girl and jumps into heaven. He lands right beside St. Patrick and starts throwing out church bells. St. Patrick is upset, and starts running up to the biggest, fanciest houses he can find in heaven, looking for God. McKeon points out that the smallest house has an angel out front, and suggests they go there to complain about each other. They go in, and find– you guessed it, right? Yes, the little girl, sitting with all the elves, giants, and snakes. And then:
She looked at them and said, “Saints are for hanging up church bells and giants are for tearing them down. That’s just the way it is. Why don’t you two try getting along?”
And they all agree to that.
It’s a great story. More importantly, the emphasis is on the story itself, and on its characters, not on messages or Irishness or anything else which would distract from the greatness of the story. This book has all the qualities of the best novels without in any fashion compromising its accessibility to children. Most striking is its subtlety. It never goes into any religious issues, but they’re there: “I’m just doing what God wants,” St. Patrick tells McKeon– ooh, boy, big can of worms! It never says that the little girl is God, but it’s pretty clear she is: I remember being so proud of myself for recognizing that when I was little. It never says whether McKeon or St. Patrick is right— and we never do know. They both are. Neither is. And that open question is the whole point: we don’t always have to know what’s right, but we should try to get along despite our differences (remember when I said this was a really Canadian book?).
That’s big stuff to hand to a child. But, as I said, the book is accessible. Bob Munsch’s writing is at its best here: open and clever and honest. You can see that from the quotes I embedded above. But what really helps with this book’s tone and accessibility is the art. Gilles Tibo, who used airbrush painting and coloured pencils in this book, is a genius at his work. He combines precision and subtlety in equal measure here, echoing the story perfectly. The lines of his work have vigour and precision– look at McKeon’s jaw in the cover above, or at the rugged line of the tree trunk. But the misty background, or the nubbly texture of the characters’ clothing, or the light-and-dark play of the apple leaves, all show a certain relaxation of rules: when is this book taking place? what is the law here? what is religion here? what is right here? The art echoes the story, again without preaching: by showing, not telling. And it does it all with engaging colours and figures and apples and fish, so that even my toddler knows and loves the pictures.
I was so happy to find a copy of this book so I could read it with my Changeling on St. Patrick’s Day, but on reading it again I found myself thinking that I should read it more often with her. It’s fun, it’s engaging, but it’s also smart and beautiful and has good things to say. And, frankly? I enjoyed reading it as an adult. So, child or not, maybe try to get your hands on this one, if you can.