Wishing for Yesterday

One of the most irresistible temptations for writers and publishers is the allure of the classic book: not as an object to reread, venerate, or even imitate — but to extend.  The more beloved the character, the more profound the itch to return just one more time to their world, even long after the creator is available to take us there.  And if this holds true for Jane Eyre (Wide Sargasso Sea) or Scarlett O’Hara (The Wind Done Gone), it’s even more the case for the characters we encounter as children and teenagers, and who take up space in an especially cherished region of the heart. 

Wishing for Tomorrow, a sequel to the 1904 children’s book A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, is among the more noteworthy of these sequels to have arrived of late.  I would have been first in line to declare it a sacrilege of anyone daring to touch this classic work of late-Victorian sentimental literature.  

For readers who cannot recall or only vaguely remember the Shirley Temple version, a short recap: Sara Crewe, a child with a wealthy father, arrives at an English boarding school from India. She is imaginative, smart, kind, and a delight to all those around her. She arouses jealousy in the queen bee, but for the most part all is well until her father dies. His fortune lost as well, Sara is plunged into both grief and poverty. She is banished to the attic by the wicked headmistress, Miss Minchin, and works as a scullery maid serving her former peers. Spoiler alert:  After much suffering and overcoming of cold, hunger, and loneliness, through a series of unlikely circumstances the little princess is rescued by her late father’s business partner and is whisked away from Miss Minchin’s  school along with the long-suffering servant girl, Becky.

Burnett’s precise touch in handling such tear-jerker material is not easily reproduced. Yet Hillary McKay, the successful British children’s book author of the irresistible Casson family books (start with Saffy’s Angel), has gotten it right. From the unexpected plot twists, real yet very quirky characters, absentee and/or distracted parents, sibling and friend relationships, and appealing scene settings, McKay more than rises to the  task.    Wishing for Tomorrow produces the effect of the very best of “fan fiction”:  the devoted reader’s carrying on of favorite characters into new situations, the elusive qualities of their voices happily intact.

McKay wisely chose to not to continue Sara Crewe’s story — which might have fallen into the trap of closing off readers’ imagined epilogues —  but to tell us what happened to the girls left behind at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies. McKay fulfills all expectations; without seeming merely to imitate her source, she re-creates the world of the British Empire at the turn of the 20th century, from the details of clothing to the smell of coal smoldering in the grate. McKay takes in view the narrow imaginative horizons ascribed to young ladies and provides hints of coming revolutions both intellectual (Darwin) and social (the class upheaval of the new century).  I grew to love these secondary characters to whom I had not given a second thought: clueless Ermengarde, spoiled Lottie, and clever but cruel Lavinia. Wishing for Tomorrow is a worthy successor to the original.

A lot of hoopla surrounded the publication of Return to Hundred Acre Wood.  For the first time, the Trustees of the Pooh Properties approved a sequel. Eighty years ago, A. A. Milne gave us the gift of Winnie-the-Pooh and the House at Pooh Corner, conjuring up the residents of an imaginary sanctuary, the Hundred Acre Wood. These stories  — which are uniquely grounded not in fairy stories told to children but in the sorts of narratives children make up for themselves — have touched children all over the world, and the Disney version popularized these nursery favorites. The New York Public Library receives thousands of visitors a year to gaze upon the original stuffed animals. It is hardly surprising that a fresh outing with Pooh and Piglet would be greeted with high expectations.

Sadly, as much as I longed to revisit these characters, David Benedictus’s sequel left me cold.  The publicity materials touted the gender rebalancing by adding a female otter character. Meh. She brings very little to the story except a stereotypically bossy girl. The text is excessively wordy, lacking the charmingly bemused tone provided by the original’s narrator. Misguidedly, Benedictus allows too much of the real world to intrude, robbing the story of its innocent childhood imaginings. The text is dense, bordering on tedious, and the art is merely decoration.  If you want to return to world of Christopher Robin and Pooh, curl up with a copy of The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh.

When Douglas Adams died of a heart attack in 2001 at age 49, my cohort of fans was shocked. His absurd sense of humor offered not merely entertainment but a satisfying perspective on life. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy  — a classic of thinly veiled satire, cloaked in an overstuffed parody of a science fiction adventure novel —  was our secret handshake. What is the answer to the ultimate question of life the universe and everything? 42, of course. What is the only item you should never be without? Your towel. The best advice in almost any situation? DON’T PANIC.

I was surprised to see a new sequel (Adams wrote four of his own) face out on a bookstore shelf.  And Another Thing: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy part 6 of 3, written by Eoin Colfer.  Colfer, a bestselling speculative fiction writer (Artemis Fowl) was hired by Adam’s widow to continue the series. Not being that impressed by the imprimatur of authorization, I soldiered on in my reading nonetheless.

Here was the bigger surprise: not bad, not bad at all. Colfer continues the adventures of Arthur Dent, Ford, and Trillian from where the previous volume, Mostly Harmless, left off. I will make no attempt to summarize the plot, but trust me when I say Colfer channels Adams’s zippy humor, deft touch with language, and ability to pile up an enormous assemblage of  preposterous ideas that the reader of the previous titles will just go along with. The sage advice and factual information of the Hitchhiker’s Guide is embedded throughout.  Did I need another one? Not really. Am I sorry to have read this one? No. Would I give it to someone who coded membership by signing off an email, “So long and thanks for all the fish.”  You bet.