Saturday, 12 March 2016
Book Review: Noel and the Donkeys by Hilda Boden
As you may know I like donkey stories and do class them as 'pony' books. (I also lump unicorns, pegasuses - or is that pegusi? - kelpies and ghost horses under the equine umbrella so donkeys have definitely got to be included!) Anyway I like to find new donkey stories and this is one you may not have heard of before despite the author being a familiar name in pony literature.
SUMMARY OF STORY:
Noel, alarmed at the prospect of living with an unpleasant great aunt after his father dies, runs away. He befriends young Sammy who is giving donkey rides on the beach whilst his grandfather is ill. Sammy's grandma offers Noel a summer job helping with the donkeys. But things don't go well: Noel's attempt to disguise himself comes a cropper and Rumshus, the other boy who helps with the donkeys, becomes jealous of Noel and tries to get him into trouble...
This is actually the first in a series about the young red haired boy Noel and his various adventures. It has a donkey theme although not really a huge amount of equine content. Although the book is aimed at younger readers with its shortness, simple plot and dialogue, older children and even adults can enjoy the book too due to a certain wry humour provided by the adult characters. In fact the adult characters, in particular the Grandmother figure, are the highlights of the book.
The book is lightly humourous throughout but unfortunately some of the humour is provided through an insidious racism which also runs throughout the story.
Rumshus the black boy is portrayed as lazy, greedy, selfish and resentful: all traits of that racial stereotype which the British Empire held of the African American at that time. Rumshum is very deliberately contrasted to the two white boys who have all the positive qualities he lacks. He is the butt of much of the joking and humour in the story and also provides the main threat to Noel’s happiness. That this racism is a product of the times and is lacking in any real malice, does not excuse it to the modern reader. I literally felt a nervous shock ripple through me when one of the characters said that Rumshus didn’t need to wash as much as the others as he didn’t show up the dirt!
Racism aside, it is a nice enough, well written story with a likeable main character. Although fairly standard stock in terms of plot, the backdrop to the story adds an extra element for we modern readers. It provides a snapshot of a very British tradition and era: that of the British beach holiday of the early to mid 20th century with its donkey rides, Punch and Judy shows and music hall type entertainment. It is very nostalgic reading now that this tradition has all but disappeared.
I would have liked a little more donkey content in terms of the characters of the various donkeys and they could have played more of a part in the plot instead of being for the most part a backdrop to the main story. However the author is at pains to portray the donkeys as happy and well-looked after. Sammy is very conscientious in caring for his charges, making sure they are well rested and not over-worked. When the unpleasant Great Aunt complains that they are poor downtrodden animals, he hotly denies this.
There are a number of further books which follow Noel’s adventures and I liked this one well enough to be happy to read any of the others should I come across them, though I am not sure if donkeys feature in any of them.
PONYMAD RATING: 3 HORSESHOES (GOOD)