Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Miss Suzy by Miriam Young; illustrated by Arnold Lobel (1964)

Miss Suzy is one of those picture books that makes me feel all warm and cuddly and cozy inside.  First of all, I really love squirrels.  My Grandma and Grandpa Thrasher used to leave corncobs out for them to eat, and my brother and I named the squirrels Charlie and Monkey.  All squirrels were Charlie and Monkey after that.

She's an old fashioned kind of girl, Miss Suzy. "She liked to cook, she liked to clean, and she liked to sing while she worked."  Sounds like a nice life.  Her funny little house at the top of a beautiful oak tree, with its acorn cups and a "little broom she'd made from maple twigs" always seemed nice and cozy to me.  "At night, Miss Suzy climbed into her bed and looked through the topmost branches at the sky.  She saw a million stars.  And the wind blew gently and rocked her to sleep.  It was very peaceful."  Sounds like it.

"One day a band of red squirrels came jumping and chattering to the foot of the tree... they were quarrelsome fellows and liked fighting so much, they even fought among themselves."  In a scene from The Wind in the Willows, those rascally squirrels kicked Miss Suzy out of her house, and broke all of her nice stuff.  They look mean as hell too.  Monkey and Charley didn't look like this at all.  Clearly, from the hats, they are part of some 1960s inner city gang, Westside Story style.  Something I noticed as a grown up that I never noticed (or at least I didn't remember) as a child is that Miss Suzy is a gray squirrel and the gang are all red squirrels.  Why bring race into this?  

It starts to rain, and Miss Suzy finds this old abandoned house (one of my favorite, most longing, nostalgic illustrations from the book is the old house in the rain; it's probably 100 degrees out now, in this land of no seasons, and seeing an autumn oak and an old house on a rainy evening depicted in such a lovely way makes me want to be a little kid again, snuggled up, hearing this story read aloud while it rains or snows outside).  

In the attic of this old house is an old dollhouse that's full of dust and cobwebs.  Miss Suzy cleans it all up and lives there.  She also finds a box of toy soldiers - all boys - who come to life.  She befriends the soldiers, and invites them to come live with her.  With a touch of Peter Pan, she "took care of them like a mother."

Personally, this is where the story takes a turn that I don't really like.  There are too many unanswered questions about the soldiers and the dollhouse.  Why are they there at all?  If the soldiers can move around and have free will, why did they stay in the box - why didn't they march off long ago?  That's bothersome.  When you create a fantasy world,you shouldn't leave holes.  I mean, you can't possibly fill up every hole, and obviously the story hinges on these toy soldiers.  But that's a pretty big hole all the same.

So in return for her kindness, the toy soldiers decide to go kick red squirrel butt.  Their mere presence and a warning to the red squirrel gang "This is Miss Suzy's house.. will you go peaceably or must we fight?" is enough to send the rascals scattering.

So Miss Suzy moves back into her old house, and then "the soldiers waved good-bye and marched off through the forest, singing merrily."  And Miss Suzy lives happily ever after, I guess.  Except for the next day, when the red squirrels all figure out that the toy soldiers are all gone and Miss Suzy is once again all alone.  Not a very satisfying end.

So if you think about it too much, the story is kind of lame, but Arnold Lobel's pictures definitely save the book.  

Miss Suzy for me is about nostalgia rather than having a great story.  

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
If you think too deeply about Miss Suzy, you may end up in the same place I did:  Miss Suzy was a little gray squirrel who lived all by herself in the tip, tip top of a tall oak tree who needs to learn how to fight her own battles, because tomorrow always comes.  Ignore the swiss cheesy story and concentrate instead on Arnold Lobel's warm and wonderful illustrations.  All world weary smugness aside - who wouldn't want to live in Lobel's cozy little squirrel house at the top of an autumn oak, cooking and cleaning and singing the day away?  The red squirrel gang look like they came straight out of an early 1960s production of West Side Story - in the most delightful way.  My favorite illustration, the one that leaves me with this intense feeling of nostalgia, is the old house in the autumn rain - how wonderfully lonely and sad is that picture?  If only the story had stopped there, or become something else entirely.  Poor Miss Suzy.  Almost set free by her illustrator, but trapped instead by so-so story.  

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