Friday, August 24, 2012

Petunia by Roger Duvoisin (1950)

Petunia is one of those books that seems to have been around everywhere when I was a kid - at the public library, in the dentist's waiting room, in other kids' toyboxes - but never one that we actually owned.   The cover is incredibly familiar and eye-catching - white goose on a red background, Petunia is big green letters.  All the illustrations are very fifties too, atomic age color palette, bulky and angled, like the cars.  I don't think I ever had actually read the book before.  I knew Petunia was a goose, and that was just from the front cover.  

 The story in a nutshell (or in a goose's egg, perhaps).  Petunia finds a book but doesn't read it; instead she carries it around thinking that by merely having it, that makes her wise.  As she becomes prouder and prouder, the other animals in the barnyard decide that she must truly be wise, so they start asking her opinions on different things.  She gives the wrong answer every time, often with horrible results.  In the end, she realizes that reading is what really makes you truly wise. So she decides she needs to learn how read.  

Great message, cute story.  I wasn't quite sure I knew where the story was going at first.  Petunia as a know-it-all, and wrong one at that, just because she was a lover of books stuck in my craw, until I got to the end.  

It's definitely Aesopian (if that's a real word).  There is a moral at the end - "It is not enough to carry wisdom under my wing.  I must put it in my mind and heart. And to do that I must learn to read."  That's certainly a message I can get behind.
Note the poor cat.

Pride also seems to goeth before Petunia's fall - although to be honest, she doesn't really get injured in any way.  Everyone else does.  So perhaps the other moral is about placing trust in people only appear to be wise without having true wisdom.  Maybe it's "Don't listen to politicians or people in power; do a little research on your own."  So secretly is Petunia a screed against McCarthyism, for example?  Mmm, that's an interesting thought.  Petunia = McCarthy.  McCarthy had his (ultimately fake) list of Communists; Petunia had her book full knowledge but actually knew nothing.  Everyone trusted Petunia and got hurt; if everyone had trusted McCarthy, they would have been hurt as well...  It's the right time period (late 40s)...  It's an interesting thought, that's for sure.



PetuniaPetunia by Roger Duvoisin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Petunia is a silly goose who thinks that merely carrying a book around makes here wise.  But her barnyard friends are even more silly - they also think the same thing, and start asking her advice on a number of troubling issues they are having.  Advice, as Tolkien writes, is a dangerous things, and the results are merry for the reader and painful for the barnyard animals.  Except for Petunia, who gets off scott free.  She realizes at the end that reading the book is what makes one wise, not just owning the book.  Written at the beginning of the McCarthy years, I wondered if Petunia and her silly, too trusting barnyard friends were stand ins for something far deeper - perhaps about slick politicians who appear wise and a too trusting electorate.  Or maybe it is just a little Aesopian fable of a goose and her book (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar).


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