Reviewed by Gerard Healy
A charming tale for older children and adults about greed, kindness and community by American author Kelly Barnhill.
The setting is a small rural town named Stone-in-the Glen, which could be almost anywhere and which used to be a lovely town (everyone said). The townsfolk are a typical cross-section of humanity. The local Mayor, however, is a different story altogether. There’s also a group of orphans, who turn out to be smaller-sized heroes, and an Ogress, a large-sized one. Add in a dragon and some crows and cats to the mix and you have the characters of this possibly allegorical tale. The narrator of this yarn turns out to be an unusual choice as well.
Unfortunately, the town has fallen on hard times and now everyone seems suspicious of their fellow citizens. This discord has been fostered by their charismatic mayor, who is not all he seems to be.
Living on the edge of town and very much an outsider is the Ogress of the title. She is an imposing figure with a kind heart, but is treated warily by most locals. At the other end of town is the Orphan House, where an aged couple try their best to look after their fifteen charges. The three oldest orphans, Anthea, Bartleby and Cassandra, become the heroes of this tale as they try to work out what’s going on and restore things to their once harmonious state.
Animals also play a significant role in this story. The Ogress is followed everywhere by a murder of crows, who look out for her and fetch and carry items as well. In a novel twist, the author has Anthea able to speak crow. “Caw” can mean all manner of things it turns out. Then there’s the posse of cats that patrols the boundaries of the mayor’s house. Which side they’re on, remains a mystery until near the end of this engaging yarn.
What’s very clever about the writing is that children can read this interesting story of good versus evil and be entertained. Adults, on the other hand, may read into it something else.
This could be an examination of a powerful leader’s rise and fall from political power. Consider this scenario: a golden-haired man appears on the scene able to cast a spell over the townspeople with his eloquence. He is elected Mayor and basks in the adulation that flows his way. He sets up signs around the square warning citizens to be wary of others, after first the library and then the school are burnt to the ground. He convinces people to donate to his causes but keeps the gold for himself. Eventually, with the help of the children, people see through his act and he flees.
Barnhill is adept at describing the mayor. He incites the mob to attack the Ogress (when they mistakenly think she’s kidnapped a child). He let a hiss slither into his voice, all honey laced with poison. “No one should break the law. I repeat, no one should get caught breaking the law” (240).
Since Barnhill is an American, my first thought was that she had in mind Donald Trump as the shifty, untrustworthy mayor. However, Trump is not the first leader to use fear of others and an ability to cleverly spread his message to his devoted base. Unfortunately, there’s been a conga-line of such power-hungry, talented but warped men over the centuries.
But if we consider Trump for the role, then the destruction of the library and school I took to be his assault on scientific evidence and a disdain for facts, that don’t suit his worldview (so-called ‘Fake News’). Remember Trump’s treatment of medical advice during Covid. The love of gold is clearly Trump’s attempts to enrich himself and his business empire using the Presidency and the signs he displays are reminders of his constant chants of Build the Wall and Lock Her Up. As for sowing discord, how about his comments on Mexicans and Muslims?
In a series of books they produce, the children ask their fellow citizens to re-evaluate their idea of a neighbour. They then use the theme of kindness towards your neighbour to gradually turn people away from their narcissistic mayor.
Children aged 9 to 12 should also find it easy to identify with at least one of the orphans and would probably have met a range of similar adults to the ones in the story. Adults might recognize themselves in the townsfolk and the situation where trust is eroded by demagogues. The elements of fantasy (people talking crow, a dragon in disguise and the ogress, etc.) are woven seamlessly into the tale and add to the book’s appeal.
This is a book I’d thoroughly recommend for kids and adults alike.
Kelly Barnhill was born in 1973. She won the Newbery Medal for The Girl Who Drank the Moon (2017) and has also published The Witch’s Boy (2014) among others. She won the World Fantasy Award in 2016 for her novella The Unlicensed Magician. She lives in Minnesota with her husband and three children.
The Ogress and the Orphans
by Kelly Barnhill
Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 978 180078 302 7
$16.99 (PB); 416pp