Monday, November 17, 2014

The Poppykettle Papers

The Poppykettle Papers
By Robert Ingpen and Michael lawrence
Illustrated by Robert Ingpen 
Publisher: Trafalgar Square Publishing
Age level: 8+
In the wake of  all the terrific books discussed here these past few days -  books that take us back in time to visit actual historic events and see how people really lived- The Poppykettle Papers  is  definitely an anomaly . It is, after all, a fantasy, tracing the voyage of a fictional tribe of non-humans across the treacherous ocean in search of a new home. It is a story peopled with magically animated dolls, tetchy sea gods, strange sea creatures, talking wind gods –oh, and did I mention the vessel of choice for this odyssey is a little clay pot? Yet, it captures the anxiety and heartbreak of the reluctant immigrant beautifully, and shows us, through the eyes of its little heroes, what it means to lose one's roots and venture out into the unknown in search of new ones. The book also playfully appropriates a slice of Australian history, offering an alternate explanation to the Geelong keys mystery.  Originally published in two parts, The Voyage of the Poppykettle and The Unchosen Land-, the book proved so popular in Australia that locals actually began celebrating the mythical landing of the Hairy Peruvians with an annual festival!  The Poppykettle Papers remains among the best loved books in Australia even today. Sadly, the book is now out of print and one would be immensely lucky to find  a copy in a used book store or library.
The story begins with two young Australian boys finding a stash of old papers on their farm. Astonishingly, the papers turn out to be the account of an epic journey taken by five very unusual travelers. For the Hairy Peruvians aren’t just any tribe – they are the last of a clan of sacrificial Peruvian dolls brought magically to life, and settled on the coast of Peru in a little fishing village. The Hairy Peruvians are tiny (or, as they like to say, “of sensible size”) and remarkably long-lived. And yet they are dying out. For El Nino, the temperamental sea god has been ravaging their home for decades, until the Hairy Peruvians began setting out in groups on flimsy reed boats in search of a new home across the ocean. But none have returned. Bravely, the last five of their tribe set out across the ocean in an earthenware pot (the eponymous poppykettle)  fitted out for the journey, despite a prophecy that states only three of them will reach the shores of the ‘Unchosen Land” (their name for this strange new world they are forced to voyage to).
The narrative is alternately voiced by the five Peruvians – Aloof the Far Sighted, his sister Arnica, Andante the Whistler, Astute the Wise and the ancient patriarch Don Avante. The journey gets complicated almost as soon as it begins – the voyagers discover that they will never find peace in their new home unless they locate a certain feather and egg. These quests lead them frequently into danger, as they encounter adversaries like the wicked wind, the whirling ‘water devil’ , even a creature with blood red eyes living in a volcano. Will they make it to the Unchosen Land after all? What will they find there? And which three are the fortunate ones?

This is a lavishly illustrated book, and Robert Ingpen’s artwork is absolutely  stunning - he brings the Peruvians and their gods alive with his brush strokes. But even without his art, this would still be a riveting book – it is packed with humour and suspense, and the frequent bickering of the five travelers. They may survive the elements and every angry god out there, you think, but will they survive each other? There is tragedy too, but the heart-warming end of the book more than makes up for that. A modern classic, about survival, family, courage against all odds …. and the importance of packing light.

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