RETRO REVIEW: MISTRESS MASHAM’S REPOSE BY T.H.WHITE

What kid, after reading GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, didn’t secretly dream of discovering an abandoned, forgotten colony of Lilliputians?  This happy circumstance befalls Maria, an engaging ten-year-old orphan, heiress to the vast, but now-decrepit, estate and palace of Malplaquet (modeled on Churchill’s Blenheim Palace), somewhere in post-World War II England.  Maria’s nasty governess and guardian, Miss Brown, abetted — and often subverted — by an equally nasty co-guardian, the Vicar, is conspiring to rob Maria of her inheritance.  When the two blackguards discover Maria’s secret colony of small minikins, they set a plot in motion to kidnap them, sell them for profit, and, if Maria interferes, do away with her in an insidious fashion.

The evolution of Maria’s involvement with the Lilliputians is delightfully rendered by author T.H. White (THE ONCEANDFUTURE KING), giving the reader both significant and amusing insights into relationships between parents and children and between the powerful and the powerless.  White writes, “She wanted to play with them, like lead soldiers…and even dreamed of being their queen.”  White continues, “But the Lilliputians were not toys.  They were grown up, however short they were, and they were civilized.”

White sets up the initial confrontation between Maria and the Lilliputians in his quintessential, ironic, whimsical style:  “However, Maria lost grip of herself and she now proceeded on the road to ruin with the speed of a Rake’s Progress.” This conflict is resolved, following a near-tragedy, and Maria and the Lilliputians develop a relationship of mutual respect and admiration.  The plot speeds up exponentially when the evil villains Miss Brown and the Vicar discover the existence of the Lilliputians and decide to use them for their own gain, obviously without the assistance of any moral compass whatsoever.  White uses this plot arc to expand on his themes of the importance of resourcefulness, intelligence, loyalty, and kindness.

Upon first picking up this treasured childhood book again after over fifty years, I was struck first by what a nerdy kind I must have been to have loved this book so much! Compared with today’s fast-paced middle grade novels, sadly, MISTRESS MASHAM’S RESPOSE drags a bit in the beginning chapters, with sentences such as, “They looked hopeful but wistful when they heard this from her own mouth, not knowing Maria well enough, as yet, to be sure that her word was her bond.”  The missing will of Maria’s deceased parents, one of the key underpinnings of the major plot of the story, isn’t even mentioned until page 63.  However, if readers are hooked, as I hope they will be, by the unique concept of tiny Lilliputians needing protection conjoined with Maria’s orphaned plight at the mercy of her cruel, selfish guardians, they will be immensely rewarded by White’s boundless creativity and imagination in his wry and empathetic characterizations, descriptions of Malplaquet’s decayed elegance, and inside jokes sure to be appreciated by nerdy kids, humorists, anglophiles, classicists, and literary enthusiasts.

White treats his young readers as co-conspirators, empowering them by giving them the inside track in the perennial struggles of the smaller and weaker against the larger and stronger, an enduring theme in classic children’s literature.  Written in White’s tongue-in-cheek style, scenes such as the hysterically-funny yet frantic search for Maria by her only friends and cohorts, the ever-faithful Cook and the erudite, nerdy Professor, who ultimately free her from the Malplaquet dungeon, thanks to the intrepid Lilliputians, will keep the pages turning, even almost seventy years after its first publication.  The proposed murder of Maria by Miss Brown and the Vicar creates tension worthy of today’s middle grade writers, and Maria ultimately solves her own problem with her intelligence and ingenuity, bringing a satisfying and cathartic closing to this classic children’s book.  Oh, but wait just a minute here…it’s not really a ‘children’s book,’ is it?  Indeed, White quotes people dismissively saying of GULLIVER’S TRAVELS:  “Oh, that’s a children’s book, isn’t it?”

If you are a true Nerdy Book Club member, as I suspect you are, or you wouldn’t even be reading this, I encourage you and any of your young reader friends to open up this magical and rewarding middle grade novel to be enthralled by Maria’s adventure, as I was, once again, after so many years.  And, who knows, you yourself may even discover a tiny baby, nestled in a walnut shell, lying in the grass….

Named by her junior high school classmates in the yearbook as the nerdiest kid in her 9th grade class, Margo Sorenson is the author of twenty-eight books for young readers.  A National Milken Educator and Minnesota Book Award finalist in YA fiction, Margo’s latest middle grade mystery/adventure is ISLAND DANGER (MuseItUp Publishing, June 2012) set in Hawaii, complete with surfing and explosives.  For more information on Margo and her books, please visit www.margosorenson.com.  You can also follow Margo on Twitter as @ipapaverison (the first words of her Italian childhood song – yes, that’s nerdy).