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  • Classic Americana:Themes and Values in the Tales of Robert Lawson
  • Valden J. Madsen (bio)

Robert Lawson died in 1957, at about the time I outgrew his books. His tales were my childhood favorites, far outclassing anything else I read or had read to me. My brothers and I loved his characters and their adventures, their wit and humanity. We felt especially close to the rustics—perhaps because we were surrounded by similar characters in rural Wisconsin—and repeated their semi-literacies until my mother threatened to stop reading aloud if we kept it up. My abiding suspicion is that she wouldn't have, for she loved Lawson as much as we did. She may have been annoyed when we came bringing her "ding-blasted" spectacles so that she might read to us, but her annoyance was without rancor. Which brings me to a point: grown-ups read adult books, and children read children's books, and yet there was my mother, mature, peerlessly well-read, responding with gusto, and genuine involvement to the books she read to us. Television hadn't smothered us in its muttering gray cloaks, but surely there must have been more to her pleasure than her love of literacy. I think I know the answer now.

When I came back to Robert Lawson after an absence of more than twenty years, I was struck by the immediacy and vitality of the incidents, personnages, and ideas he presents. Even after all those years, his words and pictures—for Lawson was a renowned illustrator, as well—moved me as intimately as images ever have. I've read a lot of books since 1957, yet this kid stuff spoke clearly to me, establishing its place, demanding an audience. Lawson's values are traditional and sound, basic enough to be grasped readily by young readers. In Lawson's imaginary universe, the good usually end happily and the bad unhappily, to paraphrase Miss Prism, and Lawson offends no conservative group. One may, in fact, take exception to the [End Page 89] rosy view of Irish immigrant life depicted in The Great Wheel or to the idealized portrait of Christian charity represented by the two main delegates from the human race who bring peace and plenty to Rabbit Hill; similarly, those who would like children to be more critical of America today may dislike Lawson's frankly patriotic treatment of the American Revolution in Mr. Revere and I. In none of these three books, however, is Lawson blind to the reality of human vice. His people and animals may be wicked and grasping; some of them have other shortcomings. But in all Lawson's tales there is the steady reassurance that good will out, that no matter the snares and pitfalls, humane values will eventually emerge preeminent. Certainly this proves true in the three books I've just mentioned and will be writing about, and the triumph of traditional values is an important theme in other books by Lawson as well. The Fabulous Flight, for example, gives us a tiny boy—he's only a few centimeters tall—astride his faithful seagull, Gus, stealing a miniature atomic device from a mad scientist, thus securing the world from nuclear holocaust. Mr. Twigg's Mistake stars a miraculous mole—General DeGaulle—who grows as large as a walrus and strikes it rich when he discovers oil during his burrowing.

But whatever his moral or thematic purpose, Lawson never insults his readers by talking down to them. Moreover, the values he conveys are taught by indirection, never pedantically or didactically. Even in the moral allegory, Robbut: A Tale of Tails, Lawson entertains at least as much as he teaches. In all of Lawson's works, values grow organically from situations and characters, and this is nowhere better illustrated than in Mr. Revere and I. Lawson is masterful as he presents the cardinal events of the American Revolution from the point of view of Paul Revere's horse Scheherazade.1 The reader meets important figures and witnesses historical turning points—all as viewed from the horse's changing perspective.

She does not come to Boston by choice in 1768, for Scheherazade is every inch a...


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