BADGER ON THE BARGE and Other Stories by Janni Howker
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BADGER ON THE BARGE and Other Stories

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Five stories built around the relationship between a child and an old person might seem too much of a prevalent motif. The old persons are all odd ducks, too--loners, social deviants of some sort, persons who confide in children, and need and trust them. Though one story could perhaps have been omitted without loss, each of Howker's five children grows in a different way: how is central, not the relationship per se. From any point of view, the title (and lead-off) story is the standout. Helen Fisher, delivering baskets from the school harvest festival to local pensioners, gets a grudging welcome from old Miss Brady, barge-dweller and--to Helen's horror and fascination--friend-in-need of a smelly, cranky old badger, Bad Bill. Helen's older, grammar-school brother Peter has been killed in a motorcycle accident, and Dad is inconsolable at the loss of his hope and pride. From the rapt scene in which Helen takes her parents to watch Bad Bill play on the barge, breaking the silence in the house, to her wheel-chair kidnapping of Miss Brady from the hospital, Dad comes out of ""hibernation""--allowing himself to cry at fresh sight of Peter's pictures (Helen's termerity), and then to laugh aloud at that ""old Badger,"" Miss Brady's, brazenness. In ""Reicker,"" a darker tale, two bored country-boys--each story has a different, distinct English setting--callously taunt an elderly, ex-German POW by calling him ""Nazi""; one of the boys then saves the man from being mistakenly shot (in a murder-incident, a bit of pathetic local excitement), and apologizes for the Nazi-taunt. ""When I was your age,"" old Reicker shrugs, ""I was."" ""The Egg-Man"" is a delicate parallelism, where any misstep would have been fatal: Jane's father is devotedly fashioning a feather-portrait of her mother as a birthday present, and to get him some brown feathers Jane invades the henyard of the crazy old egg-man--who takes her for his dead wife, and seeks to embrace her. ""Jakey""--involving an emotionally-needy boy and a failing recluse-fisherman (who casts off to die)--is the most conventional, genre-wise; but it too has an insinuating twist in the boy's jealousy of fisherman Jakey's dependence on an older, hardier youth. ""The Topiary Garden"" again takes a girl out of the shadow of father and brother--through hearing how topiary-gardener Sally Beck, now 91, once had to don her brother's clothes to win her freedom. This is textured and layered work, from an auspicious newcomer, that succeeds as story and rewards close, reflective reading.

Pub Date: March 18th, 1985
Publisher: Greenwillow