Tuesday, November 6, 2007

"The Tale of Hawthorn House"

Susan Wittig Albert is the best-selling author of many books for young people and mysteries for adults.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new book The Tale of Hawthorn House, and reported the following:
The Tale of Hawthorn House is the fourth book in an eight-book mystery series (The Cottage Tales) featuring Beatrix Potter and residents of the Lake District village of Near Sawrey. Each book provides a village mystery, solved, of course, by the intrepid and astute Miss Potter, with the creaturely assistance of a crew of domestic and woodland animals — all of whom talk. Well, you’d expect that, wouldn’t you, from Beatrix Potter, whose bunny books were the publishing phenomenon of the early 1900s? The series is aimed at readers of all ages. It is especially enjoyed by young readers (the books are being used by homeschool moms and dads), adult readers who fondly remember Beatrix Potter’s “little books,” and families looking for family read-alouds.

The page 69 test, applied to The Tale of Hawthorn House, turns up three of the creatures who live in Beatrix Potter’s barnyard at Hill Top Farm, the Lake District farm that Miss Potter purchased in 1905. Aunt Susan and Dorcas, black Berkshire pigs, are “real”: that is, they were real pigs who really enjoyed Hill Top’s kitchen scraps, as described by Beatrix Potter in her letters.

Indeed, Aunt Susan was Beatrix’s pet pig, who, as a piglet, ate in the kitchen and slept in a basket beside Beatrix’s bed. (For me, a big part of the fun of this series is weaving odd bits from Beatrix’s real life into my made-up fictions.)

Jackboy is a fictional Cockney magpie who has recently flown up from London. Jackboy likes to carry tales, although his rhyming slang renders him rather enigmatic. In this case, he’s tattling about Jemima Puddleduck’s secret stash of eggs. His riddling rhymes contain the clue to the barnyard mystery (only one of the mysteries of this multi-layered novel), if the pigs were smart enough to decipher it. Here is the whole of page 69:

Now fully pig-size (and then some), Aunt Susan still enjoyed kitchen privileges: biscuits and brown bread and beans and rice pudding from the Hill Top table, all stirred together in a bucket and moistened with warm, fresh milk from Kitchen the cow, and one or two eggs added to the mix. Which is why Aunt Susan was the fattest, laziest pig in the Hill Top barnyard, and why she was always thinking ahead to the next meal.

“Eggsie-peggsie in a nestie-pestie,” Jackboy remarked informatively, stretching his black wings.

“I think,”
hazarded Dorcas, “the fellow is babbling about eggs.” Dorcas was a clever, enterprising pig, slimmer, speedier, and not nearly so docile as Aunt Susan. Whenever she could, Dorcas pushed her way under the fence and darted into the woods (if you have ever seen a pig run, you will know that “dart” is exactly the right word). When she was safely out of sight in the woods, she always trotted straight to her favorite oak tree to root for acorns until someone fetched her home to tea.

Aunt Susan murmured. She rolled over onto her right side, setting in motion a muddy tidal wave. “I am very fond of eggs. I have been known to eat them raw, but I prefer fried or scrambled.” She closed her eyes, grunting dreamily. “Poached eggs are very good, too. And shirred eggs, and soft-boiled and baked. And creamed with chipped beef on toast, and deviled, and smothered and—”

remarked Jackboy in a confidential tone.

“Quacksie-hatchie-missie-blissie.” And with that, he flew away.

Dorcas scratched her piggy ear with one hind hoof.
“I always imagine that there is some great significance in Jackboy’s tales, but they are probably just nonsense. It sounds as if he is talking about ducks and eggs.”

“There is no nonsense about eggs,”
said Aunt Susan firmly. “They are extremely significant. Chicken eggs, duck eggs, goose eggs, guinea eggs, partridge eggs — delightfully tasty, each and every one of them.” She shuddered. “Except, of course, when they are served with pork sausages or bacon. Then they are incredibly inedible.”

This page is more fun if you read it out loud. I love to play with language, and Jackboy’s rhymes and Aunt Susan’s piggy lists absolutely delight me. But I’m sorry that Miss Potter and Jemima Puddleduck, the book’s two protagonists, don’t appear on page 69. To meet them, you’ll just have to read the rest of the book, won’t you?
Read an excerpt from The Tale of Hawthorn House, and learn more about Susan Wittig Albert and her books at her website.

Enter the drawing for a first-edition copy of The Tale of Hawthorn House by visiting the book's special book drawing page. There is a deadline, so don't dawdle.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue