Friday, February 09, 2007


Forgotten Bookshelf Review: Miss Jaster's Garden

Miss Jaster's Garden
by N. M. Bodecker
Golden Books, 1972 (reiss. 2001)


As I write this it is a whopping nine degrees outside, and I'm wearing about four layers of clothing while sitting inside my drafty old house. Two nights ago a case of Dr. Pepper froze and exploded in the trunk of my car, leaving a giant pile of what appeared to be brown dirty snow sitting on top of a collection of oddly punched-out cans.

Time for some spring? You betcha. And Miss Jaster has just what we need to get us through these winter doldrums.

Residing in Villa Pax, a charming English seaside home, Miss Jaster loves nothing more than to tend her spacious, flower-filled garden. She tends and cares for all of the garden's inhabitants, especially Hedgie, the hedgehog who lives quietly in a corner of the grounds and enjoys both saucers of milk and Strauss waltzes from his landlady.

Hedgie is so content with his life, that he does not even bother to wake when Miss Jaster is sprinkling seeds over the patch of ground where he is napping, nor when she combs a rake over him; "he rather enjoyed having his back scratched." Nobody is more pleased than Hedgie when flowers sprout and grow among his quills ("I believe I shall be quite handsome,") but when Hedgie wishes to skip and stroll far from home in a burst of springtime ecstacy, Miss Jaster is startled by the "runaway flower bed" and summons the constable to catch the "thief."

All a simple misunderstanding, of course, and readers will know from the start that this story will have a pleasant ending, but like any outing in the springtime, the journey is just as important as the arrival.

N. M. Bodecker is best known in the U. S. for his illustrations for Edward Eager's Half Magic books -- elegantly lined drawings of loose-limbed children with comically expressive faces. Miss Jaster's Garden was his first original story, and the illustrations are much more austere than in his other works. Miss Jaster is slim and wiry, with impossibly tiny feet, and her home is rendered with a wealth of fine-lined architectural detail -- each groove on every urn in the garden is given its due. The figures look almost motionless, giving the effect of statues carefully placed on a lush lawn, and in that sense the watercolors reminded me very much of Edward Gorey, only without the macabre sensibility. Think of the style as something like Gorey-Meets-Monet. One of the more appealing parts of the book is how the entire garden is lovingly rendered in the form of a colorful "horticultural survey" map on the endpapers, just begging to be explored by fingertip again and again.

If anything, this is a book to be savored -- the length and whimsical details of the text make it an excellent book to be read in one or more sessions. At the end, you'll be tempted to spend time as Miss Jaster and Hedgie do -- spending long afternoons outdoors, accompanied by a tray of tea and "nothing but peace and sunshine and a touch of Sweet William."

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