Sunday, July 17, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Return of the Twelves by Pauline Clarke (1962)

Max Morley has just moved into an old farmhouse when he discovers a set of twelve wooden soldiers hidden beneath a floorboard. At first, he thinks they are just old toys, but when he begins to hear them speak and see them move, he realizes there is nothing ordinary about them. In discussions with Butter Crashey, their leader, Max learns that the twelves were once owned by four genii, whose imaginations gave them a long history of adventure and battle. The four genii turn out to be the Brontë, siblings - Branwell, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne - and the soldiers are so valuable and sought after that several parties would love nothing more than to take them from Max. Thankfully, though, the Twelves prove to have their own ideas about where they belong.

I did not plan ahead of time for this project to include so many Carnegie Medal books, but this is another one. The Return of the Twelves won the award in 1962. Though I normally would scoff at a book about sentient toys, this one drew me in right away. Max is a very believable and real character, and his relationships with his parents and siblings are similar to those most children have with their own families. He handles the magic of the wooden soldiers in a way that makes sense to kids, because it is how they are likely to imagine they would act in his position. The soldiers themselves are great fun to observe in action, and the ingenious ways Max looks after them without letting on that they are not completely independent are engaging and often funny.

I took a class in college where I was assigned Wuthering Heights, and I remember my professor providing a lot of background on the Brontës during the discussion, but of course I've forgotten the details and can't find my notes. Thankfully, though, this book doesn't require any knowledge at all of any of the Brontës' writings. Max himself wonders for a good portion of the book why his new neighbor calls himself a "brontyfan," and his interest in learning about the Brontë children, and the childhood writings that chronicle the adventures of the Twelves, stems entirely from his love for the soldiers. Readers might also take a sudden interest in reading The History of the Young Men after enjoying this book, but they don't have to have any prior background knowledge at all to appreciate the story of Max and the soldiers.

It's been a while since I've felt I could truly lose myself in the world of a book, but The Return of the Twelves gave me that experience. I was with Max throughout the story, and only once was I pulled out by a detail that didn't seem to fit. (One of the soldiers talked to a rat, and the rat talked back. As this was late in the story, and no other talking animals had been introduced, this really annoyed me. But I don't tend to like talking animals very much, so I acknowledge that this might be a quirk which is specific to me.) This is a book which holds up very well considering its age, and which all literary-minded families will want to share and enjoy together.

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