October 17, 2013


Cathedral. By David Macaulay. Houghton Mifflin. $19.99.

Castle. By David Macaulay. Houghton Mifflin. $19.99.

The Wreck of the Zephyr. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.

Lives of the Pirates: Swashbucklers, Scoundrels (Neighbors Beware!). By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Sandpiper. $8.99.

     Once gloriously oversized and filled with meticulous black-and-white drawings and architectural plans, David Macaulay’s Cathedral (1973) and Castle (1977) were thoroughly revised, updated and turned into more-ordinary, less-oversized, color-illustrated books in 2010. The new editions of those 2010 versions remain excellent forays into the analysis of fictional versions of some thoroughly remarkable buildings, and the color pictures throughout pull readers into the stories in a way that the more-distancing black-and-white originals never did. Still, something has been lost in this transformation, and parents who fondly remember the original editions of these fascinating books may not find the updatings fully successful – although 21st-century children will likely find them more involving than the more-cerebral originals. In both books, Macaulay invents people and places and layers them atop real information about how two of the greatest medieval constructions were created. The books make an excellent pair, in part because the purposes of the structures were so different: the one to raise people’s eyes and thoughts heavenward, the other to intimidate them and keep them focused on their place within the secular power structure of the time. In our own fast-paced, impatient age, the dedication of the builders of cathedral and castle is difficult to imagine – especially in the case of the cathedral, whose construction took so long that none of those present at its start would be alive at its completion. Macaulay takes readers through every aspect of cathedral and castle building, from site selection and architectural planning to excavation, site preparation, quarrying and transportation of stone, to funding and labor arrangements, eventual completion of the structures, and what happened to them afterwards (Macaulay’s fictional cathedral, like many real ones, remains in use, while his fictional castle, also like many real ones, is deserted and dismantled for other building projects). By turning the stories of these magnificent 13th-and-14th-century buildings into tales of the people of that time as well, Macaulay humanizes the past for young readers in much the way that Barbara Tuchman did for adults in A Distant Mirror. Both Cathedral and Castle remain substantial achievements in their new form, even though Macaulay’s felt markers and colored pencils soften the buildings and characters alike, and the reduced size of the books somewhat reduces their impact as well.

     The full impact of Chris Van Allsburg’s The Wreck of the Zephyr, originally published in 1983, remains in the book’s new edition, the pastel illustrations here neatly fitting the magical story of a boy who wished to be the world’s greatest sailor and who learned to sail his craft through the air – until he overstepped his bounds and came crashing to Earth. The fairy-tale atmosphere is created by the opening words: “Once, while traveling along the seashore.” And it remains throughout the book, even as Van Allsburg produces remarkably lifelike and nautically accurate renditions of the Zephyr, the boy, and the other characters – none of whose faces is ever presented clearly, thus lending the story an otherworldliness and universality that it might otherwise lack. It is a tale of hubris and hamartia, like so many others, of pride going before a fall, of overreaching, of striving for that which one was not meant to know. But as such tales go, it is a gentle one, with sadness but not despair, injury but not death, and – thanks to Van Allsburg’s illustrative style – considerable beauty throughout. The ending will come as no surprise to readers, yet it produces thoughtfulness and a sense of wonder nevertheless, and The Wreck of the Zephyr becomes one of those tales of wonder that stay with the reader for the implications they carry beyond the story line itself.

     Ships and seafarers of a different and much rougher sort are the subject of Lives of the Pirates, a 2010 entry in the Lives of series that is now available in a somewhat-too-small paperback version. Kathleen Krull’s text is as effective as it invariably is in these books, but Kathryn Hewitt’s always-attractive illustrations – featuring oversized heads on detailed but disproportionately small bodies – look better in the book’s original, larger size. There are 20 or so pirates here – how you count them depends on several pirate dynasties and the clever inclusion of the wholly fictional Long John Silver, whose invention by Robert Louis Stevenson created many pirate myths that persist today. Krull and Hewitt portray their usual mixture of the well-known and virtually unknown here: Blackbeard, Captain Kidd and Sir Francis Drake on the one hand, Lady Mary Killigrew, Conajee Angria and Rachel Wall on the other. The book is filled with the usual carefully researched facts that make the Lives of series so consistently entertaining as well as informative. Several examples: “Captain Kidd may have been the only pirate who ever buried his treasure.” Sir Henry Morgan retired from piracy, spent years enjoying his wealth, and at his death left behind, among other things, 640 gallons of rum. William Dampier was a diarist and dedicated scientific observer. Black Bart may have been a woman in disguise. And so on. Lives of the Pirates reveals that many pirates had short careers – Blackbeard’s lasted only 15 months – and, indeed, short lives: Stede Bonnet and Rachel Wall were both hanged at 29, Blackbeard was killed at 38, Mary Read died in prison at 36, and Black Sam Bellamy died in a shipwreck at 28. This book’s full title is an amusing play on the series’ usual “And What the Neighbors Thought,” and the book itself fits the series very well indeed, with its mixture of clear fact, strong writing and informative or amusing sidelights (in sections at the end of each mini-biography labeled “Buried Treasure,” whether or not most pirates really buried their loot). The book would be better in a slightly larger size – and was in its original form – but there is still plenty of fascination to be had in this well-priced paperback version.

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