Classics : Abel’s Island by William Steig (1975)

Abel’s Island by William Steig (1975)

By Gordon Campbell

There’s so much crap in children’s bookshops and children’s tolerance of what is put in front of them is so immense, it should not be abused. That’s why it seems worth singling out some of the enduringly good books that, thanks to librarians and online purchasing, are still available.

Hard to pick the best from among William Steig’s funny and literate children’s books. Doctor De Soto, Caleb and Kate, The Amazing Bone, Amos and Boris, Gorky Rises and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble are all terrific picture books. Among the chapter books, his picaresque novel about the noble and adventurous dog Dominic runs this one a close second, but Abel’s Island deserves its pride of place. So let’s go with it.

Steig died in 2002, at the age of 95. He was the son of Polish migrants – his father a painter, his mother a seamstress, and both of them old school socialists. He began writing children’s books only in his 60s, after two successful careers as a New Yorker cartoonist ( he drew 117 covers for that magazine) and as a sculptor. In Abel’s Island, finding his true vocation as a sculptor turns out to be just one of the many self discoveries experienced by our hero.

Briefly, this 119 page book is a chronicle of life and love, enduring through peril. It tells the story of Abelard Hassam de Chirico Flint of the Mossville Flints, a foppish and well–to-do young mouse of inherited fortune, who gets marooned on an island after being swept away in a storm, while chasing after the lost scarf of his beloved wife, Amanda. The story traces the process of self revelation he goes through during his long battle for survival on the island. If this was a Hollywood pitch, we’d call it Robinson Crusoe meets Stuart Little.

Abel’s initially futile attempts at escape, his gradual creation of a viable life style on the island and – most of all, the physical and mental challenges that isolation imposes on him and his love of Amanda – are all beautifully rendered. Gradually, Abel gets stripped of the veneer of decadent civilization and is gradually put in touch with the wilder, creative mouse who lies within. The foolish Edwardian dandy who begins the narrative is slowly transformed into a far more resilient creature. Abel survives loneliness, hallucinatory illness, physical danger – there is a marvelous series of encounters with a murderous owl – and much more besides.

The story is set in 1907, the year of Steig’s birth. As in most of his other books, Steig is uncompromising in his use of language. Children aged 9-12 should have no trouble reading it themselves, but one of the beauties of reading any Steig book aloud to children lies in the music of the words he so aptly likes to deploy. Equinoctial, drubbing, caromed, cantata, skedaddled, flotsam, mundane, verdure, parasol, fusty, opal, suspenders and constellations all crop up within the first 50 pages alone.

I’ve picked three brief episodes from the book, as evidence of its virtues. On page 81, Abel is locked in the icy isolation of the home he has fashioned in a hollow log, as his refuge from the fierce depths of winter :

“He became somnolent in his cold cocoon.,,,It began to seem as if it had always been winter, and that there was nothing else, just a vague awareness to make note of the fact. The universe was a dreary place, asleep, cold all the way to infinity and the wind was a separate thing, not part of the winter, but a lost, unloved soul screaming and moaning and rushing about, looking for a place to rest and reckon up its woes…”

Somnolent in his cold cocoon ? That’s magic. Or, take this early passage when self doubt first enters the frame – and it begins to dawn on Abel that his rescue is not guaranteed, and escape is not likely to happen anytime soon :

Was it just an accident that he was here on this uninhabited island? Abel began to wonder. Was he being singled out for some reason, was he being tested ? If so, why? Didn’t it prove his worth that such a one as Amanda loved him?

Did it? Why did Amanda love him? He wasn’t all that handsome, was he? And he had no particular accomplishments. What sort of mouse was he? Wasn’t he really a snob, a fop, and frivolous on serious occasions, as she had once told him during a quarrel? He had acted silly even at his own wedding, grinning during the solemnities, clowning when cutting the cake. What made him act the way he did?

Over the next few weeks and months, fate and circumstance give Abel plenty of opportunities to find answers to those sort of questions. Life keeps on testing him. Sometimes through the physical hardship of seasonal changes to the weather, sometimes through his own foolishness, sometimes through the indifferent violence of the natural world. Enter, the dispassionately murderous owl :

Abel also kept busy at taking it easy. Only when taking it easy, he’d learned, could one properly do one’s wondering. One night while he was resting under the stars and enjoying the noise of the river and of the November wind, a winged shadow suddenly hung over him, blacking out the stars at which he’d been gazing. Instinct brought him to his feet and sent him diving into the crevice between two rocks. In mute terror he crouched in the crevice while the owl, with grappling talons, tried to fish him out….It took off at last, and perched in a tree.

Abel could see the dark shape of the owl in the branches above, and the vibrating stars beyond. Where had this trespasser come from? Why ? Had it perhaps seen Abel’s signals? He’d been astounded by the stillness with which it had dropped from the sky. There’d been no beat, no ruffle, of wings. This was bone-chilling, to be approached so noiselessly by a winged assassin….

This use of rhetorical questions – to set up a chatty dialogue with his child readers – is a regular device in Steig’s books. They serve to express the things he wishes to share with children, and to challenge them. In Amos and Boris for instance, the tiny mouse Amos falls off a boat in the middle of a reverie under the stars, and while adrift, some disturbing possibilities enter his mind :

He began to wonder what it would be like to drown. Would it take very long ? Would it feel just awful? Would his soul go to heaven ? Would there be other mice there?

As several reviewers have noted, these are interesting questions to pose to a child. In Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, the reader is asked to tackle a fairly chilling metaphor of parental separation. Sylvester the donkey has gone missing. In fact, he has been turned into a rock on which his grieving parents end up having a picnic, and he can only be rescued from his eternal prison in the unlikely event that his parents happen to wish him out of it, right then and there. Sylvester feels highly anxious. So does the reader.

All of this is executed, one hastens to add, with the lightest of touches. Among children’s writers, only E.B. White can match Steig for the compassion, wit and graceful intelligence that he brings to bear. Abel’s battles with the owl for instance, and the pagan state to which it reduces him – he resorts at one point to sympathetic magic – provide some of the book’s most amusing passages. As the months go by, Abel also discovers a talent for working wet clay into forms that offer him the satisfactions of art.:

The red clay from which he had fashioned pots and dishes inspired him to fry his hand at making something just for its own sake, something beautiful. He made a life size statue of Amanda. Though it didn’t really resemble her, it did look like a female mouse. He was amazed at what he had wrought Good or bad, it was sculpture, it was art. He tried again and again, profiting from his mistakes, and finally he felt he had a likeness of his wife real enough to embrace.

Next he made statues of his dear, indulgent mother, from whose wealth his own income came, and of his various brothers and sisters, and he stood them all outside his log, where he could see them from the windows.

Another day he did his father. Him he carved in tough wood, fiercely gnawing the forms out with his teeth, He stood back often to study the results of his gnawing, and at last felt he had captured the proud, stern, aloof, strong, honest look of his male parent. He stood this statue next to his mother….

I won’t spoil the resolution of this story, or reveal the dangers that Abel faces, virtually right up to the finale. Safe to say, this is a love story though, from beginning to end.

These days, Steig is remembered mainly for the fact that one of his later books ( called Shrek ) provided the inspiration for two terrible, badly drawn but highly profitable movies. ( Not a single line from his book survived into the movie versions.) There’s a comparison here between the book Steig that wrote, and what Hollywood did to it. His own verdict on the film was typically benign : ‘It was vulgar. It was offensive. And I loved it.’

Down the years though not everyone – as Lela Olszewksi pointed out in this review

– has been quite so generous about some of the content in Abel’s Island. At one point in the narrative our rodent hero manages to ferment some wild berries, with dizzyingly happy results : “He drank large draughts of his wine and ran about everywhere like a wild animal, shouting and yodeling,” Yet apparently in Clay County, Florida in 1990, this was seen to be a violation of the school district’s substance abuse policy, and the book was banned. Abel may have survived everything else, but not the censors in the Sunshine State.

During his own life, Steig never had much time for such conventions. Deeply immersed at one stage in Reichian therapy, he was married four times. ( His first wife was the sister of the anthropologist Margaret Mead, and one of his children was the jazz flautist, Jeremy Steig.)

As far as one can tell, Steig’s attitude to life seems akin to the one expressed in Dominic. Despair, he recognized, was a real and ever-present option. There is a famous New Yorker cartoon series by Steig called Woe, that includes one of a man sitting in front of a typewriter with his head in his hands, but he also believed that with the right amount of optimistic energy, one could prevail. Thus, at the very start of Dominic’s journey, the noble and high spirited hound is offered a choice in life by a witch alligator he meets by the roadside :

“That road there on the right goes nowhere. There’s not a bit of magic up that road, no adventure, no surprise, nothing to discover or wonder at. Even the scenery is humdrum. You’d soon grow much too introspective. You’d take to daydreaming and tail-twiddling, get absent-minded and lazy, forget where you are and what you’re about, sleep more than one should, and be wretchedly bored. Furthermore, after a while, you’d reach a dead end and you’d have to come all that dreary way back to right here where we’re standing now, only it wouldn’t be now, it would be woefully wasted time later.”

“Now this road, the one on the left,” she said, her heavy eyes glowing, “this road keeps right on going, as far as anyone cares to go, and if you take it, believe me, you’ll never find yourself wondering what you might have missed by not taking the other. Up this road, which looks the same at the beginning, but is really ever so different, things will happen that you could never have guessed at—marvelous, unbelievable things. Up this way is where adventure is. I’m pretty sure I know which way you will go…

Dominic thanked her for her good advice and went high –tailing it up the road to the left, the road to adventure….

So should we all. – by Gordon Campbell

[Note :This essay is beholden to reviews, and to interviews with William Steig contained in volumes of the Children’s Literature Review, and to Lela Ozsewski’s review at SFsite.com. ]