There’s a silly, lovely little book I was going to talk about today, but then my daughter stole it and took it to daycare with her. I can’t blame her: it’s a fun book and it made her happy about going to daycare. But I was left one book short and had to come up with another book for today. As I stared at my shelves, looking for another silly, lovely little book, I felt a pull in another direction. It’s been windy lately, here in Boston, and I guess the wind pulled one idea out of my head and blew another in: let’s talk about Borrowed Black: A Labrador Fantasy, poem by Ellen Byan Obed, illustrated by Jan Mogensen.
This is the opposite of silly loveliness, although it is definitely a beautiful book. There’s silliness in here, there’s fun, but at the heart of this book is wind, and if you come from my part of the world, Atlantic Canada, then you know damned well that you’d better take the wind seriously. Ask my mother about driving in the wind there sometime. I suspect that there’s a reason she loved this book so much (and I learned about it from her, growing up), and I wonder whether part of it wasn’t an underlying feeling that “if you say the wind can do it, then I believe it!” What I’m trying to say here is that if there’s one part of the world where it makes sense to harness the wind to provide power for the rest of the world, Atlantic Canada is probably your best candidate. And wind is a pretty integral element of the story of Borrowed Black.
You know what? I don’t use the word “favourite” very often when talking here. I love so many books so much that I’m pretty much La Coquette des Livres; if I’m not with the book I love, I love the book I’m with. And I’m very comfortable with that kind of coquettish streak in my book life (I assure you it doesn’t extend to my family life). So I don’t bother much with throwing around preferences. But I’m entirely comfortable saying this: in the world of poetic narratives for children, Borrowed Black is, bar none, my favourite. I love many of them, but there’s only one that nestles in the deepest recesses of my heart, and it’s this one.
Why do I love it so much? I think it’s because it gives, with every word and every stroke of Jan Mogensen’s beautiful monochromatic watercolours (all blues, relieved judiciously by white and black), the impression that it’s telling an old story– something as fundamental to Labrador as the ocean and the rocks. And yet, at the same time, it’s completely original: a fantasy, not a folktale. Ellen Bryan Obed tells the story of writing Borrowed Black on her website: apparently she wrote it when she was twenty-two years old, and with very little revision, and adds, “It was as if it were not my own, that I was penning a story that had always been.” And that is distinctly the impression that comes across from the book for me, that “it had always been.” Rocks, ocean, and wind.
Borrowed Black is a Labrador creature who makes himself from bits of the land and sea around him, held together by the wind, which is part of his heart: “He had a borrowing wind for a heart/ That held him together, each small borrowed part.” But his greed for more makes him a menace: he borrows the very moon from the sky, smashes it to the ground, and buries it deep in the ocean. Then he sleeps through dark moonlessness until rescue is at hand in the form of a boat in the back of a whale. This boat belongs to Cabbage Captain and his Curious Crew, including Mousie Mate and Sinky Sailor “who was happy and round,/ Who always was laughing without making a sound.” The quiet humour which slips in here is a welcome relief from the spookiness of Borrowed Black, and Mousie Mate quickly becomes a favourite as he slips into Borrowed Black’s shack and steals the wind. Pursued by Borrowed Black, Mousie Mate bravely challenges him to show where the moon lies: “Tell us, Borrowed Black, where the moon pieces lie./ You’ll not have your wind ’til the moon’s in the sky!” Borrowed Black is forced to agree, but the wind can’t mend the broken moon. So the wind stays in the sky with the moon, and “as night turned to day…” Borrowed Black falls apart and is gone forever.
And here’s where the folkloric feel to the book really comes through:
To this very night on the Labrador
When you stand and watch on the tall, dark shore,
You can see cracks in the moon round and high
And the silver it left on its way to the sky.
And fishermen say if you follow the trail,
You’ll come to the boat in the back of the whale.
OK, let’s take note of a few things here: a) This is a children’s story, with Mousie Mate and the Curious Crew– there really is genuine fun and silliness here; b) This is a spooky story, with Borrowed Black’s glowing eyes and creepy thievery; c) This is a creation myth, explaining some aspects of the world as it is around us– the cracks in the moon, and the trail of light it leaves on the water. All of these things are true.
But there’s something more: it’s a home story. It’s rooted in its own place so very deeply that I, who also grew up in the Atlantic provinces (New Brunswick, though, not Newfoundland), feel a sympathetic thrill when I pick it up. I was desperate for my daughter to love this one, and, even aged two when I first introduced it, she did. (She also loves wind and snow and takes ice-cold baths. She’s a Maritimer at heart, that one.) She had us reading it to her again and again, so often that I’m actually labeling this as an “All Ages” book, even though it’s probably aimed at an older audience. Clearly some children will enjoy it very young.
I wonder whether I’m the best person to review this one. It’s so very personal to me, so very much a part of my home and my roots and my background that I almost feel too close to have perspective. But, then again, I watch my husband reading it with my daughter, and the two are engrossed. They’re smiling and spooked and delighted. They love it. And this is what I think: you don’t have to be Greek to appreciate the Odyssey, or English to love Joseph Jacobs’ retellings of English Fairy Tales. So, too, you don’t need to be from Atlantic Canada to know a good story when you see one, and this one is, truly, fantastic.
It’s a fantasy, and a fantasy that knows it’s home. Let the wind blow you in for a visit, but maybe bring a good hot cup of tea with you.