On May 18 of last year I wrote a post about my search for a book that I had read way back in the early Seventies, when I was about nine or ten. I knew I had read it at the house of one of my aunts. I had a pretty strong memory that it was from Reader's Digest (she had a ton of Reader's Digest books; I think she belonged to some club). I remembered some of the stories I had read in it, especially some with illustrations that had made an impression on me. I put down every detail I could remember about it, and asked for any help that anyone who saw the post could give. I got no replies, which isn't very surprising (my readership isn't very broad, though I like to think it's choice), but I kept searching periodically, and hoping.
Finally last week my Googling brought up a listing from a library that looked very promising; it showed the contents of a book that matched in every way my memory of that long-ago volume. This was the Reader's Digest Great Stories For Young Readers. A quick check on Amazon found a copy offered as "Good" (for $1.78!), and it wasn't long before I had ordered it and it was on it's way. I wasn't absolutely sure it was the right book until I actually opened the box yesterday, flipped through the pages, and saw the well-remembered pictures of forty years ago.
The book contains many childhood favorites of old. Stories of King Arthur, Robin Hood, Till Eulenspiegel, Anansi, Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and Johnny Appleseed, as well as Hindu, Finnish, Dutch, and old Greek legends are here. Excerpts from Mr. Popper's Penguins, Ben and Me, Rabbit Hill, and Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang are included. Authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oscar Wilde, Carl Sandburg, Rudyard Kipling, Isaac Asimov, A. A. Milne, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and James Thurber are represented. There are many illustrations by one of my personal favorite artists, Darrelll K. Sweet. All in all there are seventy stories, but I would like to describe the four that really stuck with me down the years.
Ichabod Paddock, by Josef Berger (Jeremiah Digges), with an illustration by Charles Gehm. A re-telling of the folk-tale about a New England whaler and his adventures with a mermaid/witch in the belly of a whale. I must admit that although I had remembered the composition of the picture I had forgotten the style, which is that sort of Sixties macabre with purple, blue, and orange.
Three Young Men and Death, by Geoffrey Chaucer, retold by Jennifer Winwood, with an illustration by Jean-Leon Huens. Three drunken youths decide to find Death and kill him. An old man tells them he saw Death down the road under a tree; when they get there they find a golden treasure. They quickly forget their plan, but greed ensures that all three do indeed find Death. I remember thinking at the time that the one with the long chin looked like Dick Van Dyke.
O'Halloran's Luck, by Stephen Vincent Benet, with an illustration by John Falter. Another of Benet's American fantasies, about an Irish railroad man who disguises a leprechaun as his nephew so that both can fulfill their destinies. I didn't remember this story, although I remembered the picture, but had forgotten it belonged to this book. The peculiar image of shaving a leprechaun in the wild at night tends to stick with you.
The Devil's Hide, a Finnish folk-tale retold by Parker Fillmore, with another illustration by Jean-Leon Huens. Erkki makes a deal with the Devil to work for him until one of them loses their temper; then the winner gets enough of the other's hide to sole a pair of boots. The Devil is crafty, but Erkki shows that he really knows how to irk. It was hard getting a scan of the picture because it spanned two pages, but I wanted to show that crazy cat in all his glory.
And so another childhood memory is found and nailed down. It was curious to see what had stayed and what had slipped around in my mind: the firm general impressions, and the twitchy, flitting details. There are apparently other editions of Great Stories For Young Readers for different years, but it was this one that was the particular bottle for my time, the one that I can open and enjoy the taste and fragrance of a long-past era.