Monday, January 23, 2012

The Quite Contrary Man

I'm not sure what it is about The Quite Contrary Man that keeps drawing me back.  I first saw it mentioned on a list somewhere this fall (and while I have a vague memory that it was an early Mock Caldecott reading list, I can't find it anywhere.  Sorry!).  I read it, liked it a lot, and thought I might blog about it.  But I had a lot to write about at that time, so I returned it.  Then Cybils season began, and it was on our list, so I checked it out again to read it.  It was due, and then I returned it for a second time.  But I put it on hold again so I could finally write about it.  There are some flaws here for me, but this book has really cast a spell on me.  It also seemed to cast a spell on Fuse#8, as it made her 100 Magnificent Children's Books of 2011.

Joseph Palmer is the Quite Contrary Man.  Hyatt says that "people called Joseph Palmer the most contrary, headstrong fellow in all New England!"  On the first page, Hyatt uses context to define "contrary" for readers who might not be familiar with the word.  She describes Palmer as "stubborn since the cradle", "pigheaded", and as above "most contrary, headstrong fellow".  So there is plenty of explanation to give readers an idea of how this man lived his life.

What there is not, on the first page or any other, is an actual date associated with the tale.  Hyatt begins the tale by stating "Back in the days of your great-great-great-great-grandparents..."but I think this folksy expression does a real disservice to readers.  I can't even figure out what year that might be - how would young readers do the math and even get the date right?  For the record, not even the historical note gives an exact date for the action retold here.  Hyatt gives some general ideas about the date - she says "thirty years later, during the Civil War" and "Now, more than a hundred and fifty years after Joseph Palmer went to jail".  And these vague references to date only come in the historical note, located on the very last page of the book.  I think this makes it harder for readers to really connect this story with the timeline of American history.  It's also a flaw when considering this book as nonfiction.

But now that I've gotten my biggest pet peeve out of the way, I want to talk more about the strengths of this story.  Joseph Palmer is a man who is very different from his neighbors.  The townspeople make an effort to look very similar - plain and proper.  Yet Joseph Palmer chooses a distinctive way to stand out from the crowd.  He grows an enormous beard.  And I do mean enormous - Hyatt describes it as flowing "from chin to belly and from elbow to elbow".  Palmer is eventually known simply as Beard Palmer.  And as can often happen when people do something dramatic to assert their individuality, others got angry with Beard Palmer.

But Beard Palmer isn't called the Quite Contrary Man for nothing.  He sticks to his guns and maintain his beard, even though his preacher tells him the beard makes Palmer look like the Devil.  He even quotes Bible verses back to the preacher.  And when men try to hold him down and shave him (with modern-day echoes in the Ohio Amish beard-cutting attacks), he fights them off.  He is even finally put in jail, where he languishes for an entire year, refusing to cut the beard the whole time.  He is one contrary man, all right.

One of the things I like best about this book is its themes.  Joseph Palmer knows he isn't hurting anyone by growing his tremendous beard, he's just showing his individuality.  And the fact that he is willing to stand up for his right to be different is something that he is definintely recognized here.  Sure, it's told with a little bit of humor, but Hyatt doesn't go over the top with Palmer's story.  Children will be able to recognize the threat of peer pressure and religious pressure throughout, and see how Beard Palmer's stubbornness helps him rise above all of that.

Many of Brown's illustrations are glorious. I wish I could show some of my favorites, but you'll be able to recognize them when you check the book out.  Though I haven't really talked about it here, the text focuses on Palmer's family - how they deal with a father who is ostracized and jailed for his beliefs.  Some of Brown's best work features the entire family (even Palmer's mother!).  On the very last double-page spread, the Palmer family dances in the road outside the jail.  There are smiles and delight all around.  The moon is yellow and full, casting the family's shadows ahead of them.  Many of the text blocks are wrapped in wooden twigs, entwined with vines.  This adds to the folktale feel of the book, and so does Brown's depiction of the infamous beard.  It truly has a life of its own as it wrestles its way out of the jail cell window, or stays sedately calm during church services.  The illustrations mostly keep the story on the light side.  Yet there are emotional pictures too, such as when Beard Palmer's son waits outside a prison window for his father's letter.  The young boy knows the letter, complaining about prison conditions, will only make things worse.  He is hunched down by the window, with sadness and longing on his face.  These illustrations really help convey the spirit of the text.

I only wish there had been more back matter to go with this story.  Even though it is told in more of a folktale style, perhaps a bibliography or more complete information on Joseph Palmer would have been welcomed.  But it is an interesting look at a man who just didn't want to be like everyone else.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.
The Quite Contrary Man: A True American Tale.  Patricia Rusch Hyatt; illustrated by Kathryn Brown.  Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2011.

borrowed from Lewis and Clark library

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