Thursday, October 20, 2011

Went

Cynthia Voigt's Young Fredle surprised me on so many levels. It's much more than your basic animal story and more than your leaving-the-nest story. There's also a terrific narration by someone I'd never heard read before (who may not have narrated before?). An all-around excellent package.

Fredle (rhymes with medal) the house mouse lives in the pantry of the farmhouse owned by Mister and Missus. His extended family forages in the kitchen at night, but are understandably fearful of the traps, the cat and the other dangers that surround them. If a mouse is caught, or gets sick enough that it can't forage for itself, it is declared "went." One night Fredle and his more adventurous cousin Axle discover and feast upon a deliciously sweet round, brown object. It makes Fredle terribly ill, and his family -- as it must -- pushes him out of its nest to went. As Fredle slowly recovers, he is gathered up by Missus and placed outside. He finds himself under the porch, not knowing what to do in order to survive.

Soon a bossy field mouse, Bardo, approaches and introduces Fredle to the culinary delights of the compost heap. Bardo acquaints Fredle with the dangers and excitements of the outside world, but instead of fearfulness, Fredle is filled with wonder ... at the light of day, the stars at night, flowers. He ventures beyond the porch and makes friends with one of the family dogs, Sadie. At the same time, he feels a longing for home and as he tries to figure out a way back inside the house, he is kidnapped by some rowdy raccoons and must rely on his wits to escape consumption. Fredle has more discoveries to make before he returns back home, and once he gets there he finds that home isn't how he remembers it.

Despite the concept of "went," this is a gentle story that even the most sensitive or mouse-phobic reader will enjoy. Voigt's loving descriptions of Young Fredle's discoveries are evocative and deeply child-friendly. Her anthropomorphized animal characters are universally appealing -- avoiding cuteness -- and demonstrate an understanding of each animal's behaviors. While I found the story arc predictable, I can see that a young reader would be on tenterhooks about Fredle's fate.

A pretty amazing narrator, Wendy Carter, reads the story. She's got a soft, gentle voice that perfectly mirrors the long summer days when Fredle's adventures occur. Fredle's curiosity and independence are evident in the voice she uses for his dialogue. Carter creates a number of vocal characterizations that are downright hilarious. Sadie, the somewhat dim yet eager dog, has a breathlessly excited delivery. Bardo's pushiness comes out in his emphatic speech. Fredle's cousin Axle speaks quickly and eagerly, but when Fredle meets her again after his journey, she has been traumatized by her own experiences. The exhaustion and depression are clear in her voice.

It's the Rowdy Boys (favorite exclamation "Woo-Hah!") who are the most fun, though. Sounding like bunch of Joisey gangsters, led by the charismatic Rilf, the raccoons burst into the story full of bluster and, well, rowdiness. They are dangerous and loveable in the same way the mobsters on The Sopranos were.

The Rowdy Boys nicely illustrate the fine line that Voigt walks in this novel: Fredle knows that these raccoons plan on eating him, but he's also having a boatload of fun with them. The danger and the humor mix it up in a delightfully scary way. This book can appeal to so many readers: like sentimental animal stories -- check! like adventure -- check! like to be scared -- check! like humor -- check! like a little sadness -- check! like great characterizations -- check! What I liked most was how unexpected this book was. What I like in a book is to be surprised! Check!

[It was a York Peppermint Pattie that proved to be Fredle's downfall ... or his ticket to adventure. This photograph was taken by Scott Ehardt and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Young Fredle by Cynthia Voigt
Narrated by Wendy Carter
Listening Library, 2011. 6:20

1 comment:

Heidi said...

Sounds like a neat book. I have to think it is not coincidence that the outside mouse is named Bardo. In Tibetan Buddhism, when one dies, and before one is reborn, one lingers in the bardo realms. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is meant to guide one through them so one has a chance to enter nirvana rather than be reborn.