A former soldier struggles to avoid losing his soul to the devil in a parable about faith, hope and charity
The Bearskinner. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Illustrated by Max Grafe. Candlewick, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Laura Amy Schlitz is the newest supernova in the field of children’s literature. For years, she had a passionate following mainly among the students who listened to her stories at the Park School in Baltimore, where she is the librarian. But her visibility soared after she earned raves for her 2006 novel for ages 10 and up, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair. This year she won 2008 Newbery Medal for her cycle of one- and two-person plays, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, and she would be equally worthy of a major award for The Bearskinner, her retelling of a Faustian tale by the Brothers Grimm.
The grave and eloquent opening lines of the book set the tone: “They say that when a man gives up hope, the devil walks at his side. So begins this story: A soldier marched through a dark wood, and he did not march alone.” In this tale a hungry and cold soldier returns from war to find nothing left of his home and the people he loved. At his lowest moment, he accepts an offer from the devil, a man with a goat’s hoof for a left foot: For seven years, the soldier will have unlimited gold. But he must wear a bearskin and may not wash, pray or tell anyone of his dark bargain. If he does, he will lose his soul.
Clad in the skin of a bear he has just killed, the ex-soldier goes off to indulge his desires. After three years, he looks like a monster, and people flee from him. He loathes himself, too, and is thinking of ending his life. But he sees a starving mother and child who give him an idea – he will use Satan’s money to feed the poor. This act of charity leads to others that enable him to outwit the devil, throw off his bearskin and marry a kind woman who has seen the good heart behind the repulsive appearance.
All of this has aspects of both a fairy and morality tale. But Schlitz neither sentimentalizes nor preaches, and Max Grafe’s wonderful illustrations remind you the work of the late Leonard Baskin in their boldness, their restricted color palette and their use of fluid body lines to suggest inner turmoil. Grafe sets the text on yellowing pages that resemble parchment, or perhaps charred tree bark, which locates the story in the distant past and may soften its potentially frightening aspects. And his devil is one of the most original to appear in a picture book in years in years. Grafe casts Lucifer as a handsome devil in the literal sense of the phrase, a man who resembles 1930s matinee idol with slicked-back hair and a flowing green cloak. No ogre with a scar, his devil is a smooth operator – just like a lot of devils in real life.
Best line: The first lines of the book, quoted in the review.
Worst line: “He rode to the gambler’s house on a dapple-gray horse.” The use of “dapple-gray” is confusing. Why not “dappled gray”?
Published: November 2007 www.candlewick.com
Furthermore: Schlitz, a Baltimore librarian, won the 2008 Newbery Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org, for her book of monologues and dialogues, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village (Candlewick, $19.99), illustrated by Robert Byrd. She lives in Maryland. Grafe is a New York printmaker and illustrator.