Roger Brunyate's Reviews > Rose & Poe

Rose & Poe by Jack Todd
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it was amazing
bookshelves: rural-america

Sweetness

The blurb calls this a rewriting of The Tempest from the point of view of Caliban and his mother, but it would be easy to make too much of this. True, there is a grand old man, Prosper Thorne, exiled in a similar way to his near-namesake and also the possessor of a wondrous staff, but he is only a minor presence, suffering from dementia. True, he has a daughter called Miranda, who is every bit as lovely as Shakespeare’s heroine. True there are very minor characters who bear a passing similarity to Ariel, Stefano, and Trinculo. And true above all that Poe, the Caliban figure, is what many people might call a monster: over seven foot tall, big-boned, with a hump on his back, eyes that do not match, and six fingers or toes on each hand or foot. He cannot read, write, or do arithmetic, but he is strong, loyal, and kind. As his mother Rose admits…
…Poe has his addlements and peculiarities. That ain’t to say he’s nobody’s fool, only he don’t do no editions nor suttractions, and he can’t read for squat. But he’s a good boy. He does right by his mother, and he does right by other folks. I believe that’s worth more than ciphers.
The Tempest connection, in short, is only the proscenium frame for the ensuing action. Once the curtain is raised, the focus of the book is entirely upon Poe, the gentle giant, and the extraordinary strength and love shown by his mother Rose, who is as different from Shakespeare’s Sycorax as you could imagine. Her first test comes at the age of 16, when she fights the state trying to put her baby into an institution. And she wins:
The judge had seen plenty of hate in his courtroom. […] Love was an emotion he saw less often. He saw how tenderly she held her baby, and he believed she could give him something no one else could. Such a child would never be adopted. Without Rose, he would become a ward of the state in perpetuity.
When reading one book, I can never stop thinking of other books as comparisons, and of course I thought about Lenny in Of Mice and Men. Jack Todd writes with much of Steinbeck’s poetic simplicity too. But Poe is an even more sympathetic character than Lenny, and incapable of his violence. Instead of impending tragedy, when reading this book, I felt nothing so much as sweetness. Even on the day when things will begin to go terribly wrong, I never lost my trust in the basic goodness of the story, no matter how subtly Todd tried to shadow the atmosphere:
Poe stoops to lean his great head on Rose’s shoulder, then hoists his fishing pole and tackle box and sets out. A fine morning has tilted on a whiff of breeze-borne minor key into a sullen afternoon and there is the threat of more rain. The sun is filtered through haze that thickens into cloud, and the birds are oddly silent. Everywhere burst milkweed has scattered, and the spidery threads dangle from the maples like Halloween decorations.
That fishing trip, though, turns into near-tragedy and unleashes a chain of events that Poe does not have the wit to put right. The Tempest is left far behind. Now I was thinking of a different comparison, To Kill a Mockingbird, without the racial element, but with another court case and all the unthinking bigotry that a small rural town (this one in Northern Maine) can stir up. Jack Todd matches Harper Lee in humanity too; there may only be a few good people in his world, but they make all the difference. By this time, I was feeling firmly in five-star territory. Later, I wondered if the tone might have been a little too sweet, and if the ultimate outcome was too predictable. But then he threw me a few curves I didn’t expect, so five it is.

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As we have seen from the Hogarth Shakespeare Series (whose star, in my opinion is also based on The Tempest, Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed), the task of modernizing Shakespeare risks losing the scale of the original by bringing his characters closer to the everyday world. In Rose & Poe, Jack Todd gives a fascinating glimpse of what he might have written had he stayed in the antic vein, with a section on Prosper Thorne stalking the Maine woods with his carved stick, his fabula animi. But this is almost the last we see of Prosper, and in turning his attention back to Poe, Todd writes in a different register entirely. I cannot say he was wrong to do so, but I still treasure the magnificence of that earlier vision:
Here the forest is a tangle of beech and fir and maple trees, leavened with the occasional hackberry or black oak. He pauses where shafts of sunlight pierce the heavy foliage overhead, stands with his arms spread wide, the walking stick upraised. There is magic in this forest. He can feel it. Odd creatures are birthed here, fully formed from the first moments of their existence, luminous and fantastical beasts, scales and skin and fur still damp from their birth, gliding down from the highest branches to caper in the shadows below. For a few moments, he can see them clearly, their lavender stripes, spiraling golden horns, and six-armed bodies. They drift down, their flanks quivering in the breeze.
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Reading Progress

November 16, 2017 – Started Reading
November 16, 2017 – Shelved
November 21, 2017 – Shelved as: rural-america
November 21, 2017 – Finished Reading

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Roger Brunyate I know I am going to be agonizing over my rating for some time to come. For all but the first and last 20 pages, I was totally immersed in it, though it seemed to lack just a little of… what? Let’s call it specific gravity.

In writing my review, I found I simply couldn’t leave out that postscript about Prosper[o] in the forest. It made me wonder what would have happened if Todd had decided to make him a major character. Making his “magic” the product of illusions caused by dementia is a brilliant idea, as it doesn’t diminish their force. But he can’t go further in that vein and still make it a book about Caliban/Poe.

So I guess I am stuck with reviewing the book he did write! R.


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