January 09, 2020


Packs: Strength in Numbers. By Hannah Salyer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Helga’s Dowry: A Troll Love Story. By Tomie dePaola. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

     There is little doubt that in some circumstances there is greater strength in a group than in individuals. The ancient Romans knew this well – hence their focus on the fasces, a bundle of sticks (sometimes containing an ax with its blade visible) that had been used since Etruscan times to show the power of being bound together rather than being as weak as an individual wooden rod would be. But there is such a thing as taking the concept too far, which is why the much later word fascism – directly derived from the ancient notion – has less-than-admirable connotations. Still, for many of the animal groupings explored by Hannah Salyer in Packs, being bound together is crucial to survival. Salyer makes her brief considerations of animal packs entertaining as well as informative both through her art and through two aspects of her narrative: giving the formal name for each specific collection of animals, and creating a fanciful overview of what each group does together. Thus, she explains how some ants head underground – where they are called, collectively, a nest – and gather green leaves to be used to grow food for the colony: “Together, we harvest!” And wildebeest, which move in groups as large as a million individuals in a “herd [that] is called an implausibility,” roam the Serengeti plains: “Together, we travel!” Salyer anthropomorphizes some animal groups to make a point, as when thousands of flamingos, “known as a flamboyance,” eat together and sleep together and find mates together: “Together, we dance!” The strength-in-numbers approach is frequently used by tiny animals that are individually weak, such as coral, and by prey animals that need to protect themselves against predators, such as zebras. Salyer stretches the groupings a bit by showing a pride of lions (“Together, we nurture!”) and numerous crocodiles basking in the sun: lions are actually social only to a limited degree, and crocodiles are not group animals at all, usually coming together only when a bask of them (“bask” being their collective noun, although it is one that Salyer does not provide) happens to want to, well, bask in the same warm area. Inevitably, Salyer ends the book with a city scene showing a large group of people, in the now-obligatory forms of racial, ethnic and sexual diversity (e.g., men walking hand-in-hand), and the statement that “we are better” as a grouping of people (which, in fact, might be called “a diversity of humans,” although it isn’t). Indeed, Salyer lays on the lessons a bit too thickly at the back of the book, using the final pages to discuss ways in which “animals in this book are under threat from things like climate change, poaching, or habitat loss.” That alters both the topic and the tone of Packs rather jarringly, but it does not really interfere with the well-presented basic information about animal groupings – and can be skipped if one is so inclined. Salyer’s end-of-book page giving the exact names of the creatures in the book, on the other hand, should not be skipped by any young reader intrigued by the illustrations. That page gives, for example, seven different names for the various corals shown in Salyer’s single picture. There is plenty to enjoy in Packs, and plenty of material that can be followed up elsewhere, perhaps starting with the six “Further Reading” examples that Salyer helpfully supplies.

     The binding-together element of conformity can certainly be taken too far when it comes to human beings, as the fasces-to-fascism example indicates. It can also be taken too far when it comes to trolls, as Tomie dePaola shows in Helga’s Dowry, a delightful 1977 book now available in a new paperback edition. It seems that all female trolls exist under a pronouncement from “One-Eyed Odin,” to the effect that “all unmarried Troll Maidens must wander the earth forever.” But troll maidens cannot marry unless they have a suitable dowry. And that is Helga’s problem: although Handsome Lars wants to marry her, she has no dowry at all. So Handsome Lars goes to Rich Sven for advice – and is promptly advised to marry Rich Sven’s daughter, Plain Inge. Oops. Well, Helga may be a dutiful member of the troll grouping, but she is also an individual, and she is not willing to be jilted just because of group customs – so she tucks her tail out of sight, loads her troll cart with sundries, and goes “hopping down the mountain into the Land of People.” Helga is clever enough to know when to go against the group, especially when the group is lazy: at a farm, she finds a washhouse with no smoke coming out of the chimney and lots of people just lolling about – and offers to get all the laundry cleaned by sundown in exchange for 35 cows, with the proviso that if she cannot deliver on time, she gets paid nothing at all. The greedy farmwife who is in charge of doing laundry but is not doing it can scarcely resist that deal – but by sundown, thanks to “troll powder in the water” and “troll wax on the iron,” Helga delivers a gigantic pile of beautifully cleaned and folded laundry and heads home with her 35 cows. And the next day she heads back to “the People’s Marketplace” to get something more for her dowry: gold. A bit of “juvenescent cream” containing troll magic helps old people look young again, and soon enough, the people are happy and Helga has all the gold she needs. Now all she lacks is a meadow – the last dowry requirement – and she knows how to get it: by cutting down a mountainside full of trees. But that part of her plan is foiled by none other than Plain Inge, who turns herself into a tree and prevents Helga from doing what she wishes – and there ensues a wonderfully drawn and very funny battle between Tree-Inge and Boulder-Helga. Yes, Helga turns herself into a boulder and repeatedly rolls down the mountain to try to turn Inge “into kindling wood.” But Inge dodges again and again, although Helga cleverly eventually gets the better of her – and then decides not to marry Handsome Lars, because “I want to be loved for who I am, not for what I’ve got!” And there is the moral of the story – and a finely fashioned comeuppance for Handsome Lars, who has to marry Plain Inge after all, while Helga ends up with a much better match with a troll who loves her for what she is and has “no need of riches,” for what turns out to be a very good reason. Helga’s Dowry is a delightfully told fable, in which dePaola’s storytelling skill and immediately recognizable art combine to produce a story about the value – and limitations – of being a member of a group and doing just what the group expects.

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