Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cinders: A Memoir And An Appreciation

It seems to me that I have spoken elsewhere in this blog about what a remarkable time for me the school year of 1973-1974 was. I had turned ten the summer before, and under the tutelage of a remarkable young teacher my reading had taken off, seeking out and obtaining for my own (and not simply for homework) chapter books. That year saw Bed-knob and Broomstick added to my small library, and Journey To The Center of The Earth, The Three Musketeers, Around The World In Eighty Days, and One Hundred And One Dalmatians. That year I also read Cinders, by Katharine Gibson, a book the plot of which I never forgot, but whose title and author eluded me for decades. It is the story of the mouse who was Cinderella's coachman, and who does not turn back at midnight, and who must make his way in the world of men.

I looked for it, whenever I went to a used book store. When the internet came along, I searched for it using every combination of terms I could think of. My quest has always been hindered by various red herrings across the path: numerous authors have since written books on same theme. There was Cinderella's Rat, by Susan Meddaugh, and I was A Rat, by Phillip Pullman, and Coachman Rat, by David Henry Wilson. It further complicated things when Disney came out with a sequel to their Cinderella with the same plot element. There the search rested for a while, if uneasily.

Some months ago I discovered the blog Collecting Children's Books, by librarian and author Peter Sieruta. Thinking that someone with such knowledge and resources about children's books as he evinced might surely be of some help, I wrote him an e-mail giving him the details and asking his aid. He posted the request on his blog, and within a week to my joy it was answered, and by none other than Laura Amy Schlitz, author of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Within a week and a half of that I had my own copy off of eBay and was once again reading a book I hadn't seen in 37 years or so.
Cinders opens with the eponymous hero alone in the windy darkness before closed castle gates, the last stroke of midnight still vibrating on the air. Close to him is a shattered pumpkin shell and some rats and mice scurrying away; he catches a brief glimpse of a girl in tattered clothes fleeing crying into the dark. He has no idea who he is or what he is. When he wanders into the royal stable the only name he can give for himself is Cinders, which is the single half-memory still in his head.
Cinders is a small, slight, mousy man, with pointy ears and nose and bright, beady little eyes, and he is dressed all in gray. He is smaller even than the loutish stableboys who work for the head groom, and when the groom hires him to work with in the stable there is some bullying and doubts about his abilities. Through industriousness, politeness, and kindness, however, he makes a place for himself, and when he heals Flash, the King's favorite horse, through his instinctive knowledge of animals, Cinders becomes a favorite in his circle.
Cinders is put to the test when Cinderella's prince is in danger of falling into a trap, and a swift messenger is needed to warn him. Taking off on his own on Flash through dangerous enemy territory, the mousy little man is able through speed, stealth, and smallness to save the Prince by delivering his message. As a reward, after Cinderella is re-united with the Prince and they wed, Cinders is made the Royal Coachman, fulfilling his destiny.
"Flash," he said, "at last, I know who I am and where I belong. Flash, right now and here, I am Cinderella's Coachman. I always have been."
Cinders was published in 1939 by Katharine Gibson, who wrote at least four other books for children. Gibson passed away in 1960. The book was reprinted in 1969; it was probably (but not certainly) this edition I read in school. The illustrations are by Vera Bock.
While I was re-reading it at last, I became aware of how deep this little book had sunk into my mind. First of all, it was a sort of proto-evangelion in my experience for The Hobbit; both heroes are as small as children, and originally looked down upon by people who measure worth in inches or fierceness. Cinders is described as being no bigger than a ten-years-old child (and remember I was then exactly ten myself) and that is exactly an age when you can suddenly become very aware of yourself and wonder both about where you came from, your place in the world, and where you are going.
I also found on re-reading that I had somehow subconsciously based a character in the children's book I had written largely on Cinders, in at least appearance. My character Thornbriar (a Field Elf) also wears a high hat with a wide brim, a long coat, and pointed shoes with buckles. He is about four feet high, has pointed ears and a long nose that (to my astonishment) twitches just like Cinders', a detail I swear I never remembered. But there it is.
Cinders is a delightful book, and deserves to be republished, but I wonder if it ever can be, as things stand. I don't know if the kind of children it was written for are being produced in any quantity now; the kids of our age seem to pass so quickly from innocent to ironic I don't know if the idyllic qualities of this book would ever appeal to a large enough audience. But there is always the hope that it could still be passed on from admirers to their children, and that this work, already over seventy years old, might linger a while yet.


John said...

Sounds like a precursor to the "Wicked" stories, taking interesting supporting characters from fantasy stories and telling their tales.
Can you think of any other characters worthy of such treatment?

Jason Rubis said...

I remember this! Got it off the Bookmobile in my hometown as a kid, read it several times. Something about it alway stayed with me...the writing was sharp and wonderfully vivid. For some reason I particularly remember Cinders using the first bit of money he makes (after he begins making his way in the human world) to buy a pipe and some tobacco, then goes strutting off puffing it, very pleased with himself. Probably not something you'd see in a kids' book today, but as a kid I found something about it very appealing. Wonderful book - thanks for bringing back some good memories! - Jason