The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett

h1 January 31st, 2007 by jules

Donkeys might have a long history of being symbols of ignorance, but in Sonya Hartnett’s The Silver Donkey (Candlewick Press; First U.S. edition — September 2006; my source: library copy), the donkey is instead a symbol of many noble qualities: patience, dependability, allegiance, kindness, humility, courage, and much more. I should say right off the bat here: Hartnett is one of my top-five favorite authors. And, once again, she didn’t let me down with this middle-grade title, which is profound and intense and graceful all at once. Hartnett seems to be writing in the tradition of the classics of children’s literature here (think turn-of-the-last-century children’s titles) — persuasively and strikingly so.

The setting is France during World War One. Marcelle and Coco — two young girls, sisters — are shocked to discover in the woods near their home a soldier who has deserted the war; is hiding out in a failing effort to make his way home to a dying younger sibling, who is — by all accounts — calling out his name; and is unable to see, due mostly to the psychologically jarring effects of having been involved in bloody warfare. The girls befriend the soldier and bring him food and items from their home in an attempt to help make him comfortable. Eventually, they tell their older brother, Pascal, about their secret. The children work together with the soldier to devise a way to successfully ferry him across the English Channel to his home — that is, without getting caught or revealing the soldier and his hiding spot in the woods.

In his possession, the soldier — Lieutenant Shepard, whom the youngest girl amusingly calls Monsieur Lieutenant in all her eagerness and confusion — has a miniature silver donkey, his good luck charm that accompanied him to the war and back. As a way to thank them for their help, he begins to tell them tales about donkeys. In all, he tells them four engrossing tales, all beautifully spun in Hartnett’s usually agile and poetic style.

The first is the legend of Bethlehem, as the publisher puts it. Yes, it’s the story of the night of the birth of Jesus Christ. Traditionally, Mary is portrayed as riding a donkey while pregnant. But the Didactic Branch of the Library Police Squad — and I say that respectfully; it’s part of our job, you know — need not worry. Hartnett would never, I dare say, end it on a “and-He’s-our-one-and-only-Savior-and-way-to-Salvation” note — out of respect for the fact that the world is not inhabited entirely by Christians. It’s simply the story of the humble donkey’s role in Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem and arrival at a neglected stable.

The second story, my favorite, is a myth from India about the sky’s refusal — once, long ago — to rain. Despite wishing for the monsoon, the animals down below (including the arrogant humans) are disappointed and frightened to experience the sky’s stubborn refusal to compromise. Famine falls on the land and its inhabitants, bringing first animosity and then simply weakness and dejection and great fatigue to all below the sky. However, one small group of people and animals refuses to bend; they dance and shriek at the sky: “{D}o what you are supposed to do, and rain!” The sky continues to refuse, noting that the people did not say “please.” “Go away, you who think the entire world is yours to command,” says the sky.

They send the elephant to plead on their behalf (too arrogant, says the sky); they send the tiger (too sneaky and a coward); they send the snake (“you’re a teller of untruths,” says the sky); and they send the enthusiastic dog, “its tongue flying like a banner” (but, says the sky, “you are devoted to the point of stupidity. You haven’t a mind of your own”).

A quiet donkey who has witnessed all of these goings-on cautiously offers to go speak to the sky, only to be snapped at by the people: “We may be hungry and thirsty, but we haven’t lost so much dignity that a moth-eaten donkey must plead on our behalf!” The people and animals scatter in the darkness, but the donkey meekly stays, refusing to ever budge. The sky, realizing that the donkey is despised yet is risking the sky’s wrath for the very sake of those who despise him, asks him: “Wouldn’t it be better, donkey, if this unkind world shriveled and simply blew away?” The donkey replies: “It’s true that I have known suffering, sky. That’s why I cannot bear the sight of it.” The sky is touched, and the rain pours down.

And then Hartnett nails it with a simply perfect, goose-bump-inducing end to the tale (something she accomplishes at the close of just about every tale the soldier tells):

Around the prickly jujube tree, the people and animals danced. They washed themselves in the pelting rain and opened their mouths to catch the drops. They sang and shouted and applauded one another. They believed that they had beaten the sky, that they had bullied it into bringing the monsoon. They did not notice the donkey who walked among them, returning to its place by the tree. It stopped under the streaming branches and seemed never to have gone. Amid the noisy, exultant crowd, beneath the stormy, foaming sky, drenched by roaring, torrential rain, the donkey stood, a speck of silence, serene.

Oh yes. Moment of silence, please, for that transcendently beautiful ending.

The third story is one of rescue during the war, another that ends on a highly emotional and lovely note. The final story is of the soldier’s aforementioned brother, now dying. He is the one who found the silver donkey, and Lieutenant Shepard recounts the tale, much to the amazement of Coco, who is most in love with the silver trinket.

What intrigues me is the level of heart-tugging drama that occurs in a lot of this novel. But if anyone can pull that off without being unbearably syrupy-sentimental about it, it’s Hartnett, who is a master of metaphor and wows me with her continued ability to evoke such unforgettable images and narratives with her detailed economy of words (one of my favorite examples being in the newly-awarded Surrender and already pointed out in my review of it back in August: “my mother’s world had contracted like a dying spider”). As I pointed out in that review, Hartnett’s prose teeters right on the edge of poetry; this is less-so with The Silver Donkey. This is more straightforward writing, less use of her gorgeously, gorgeously (did I mention I’m a fan?) evocative metaphors. But the novel is tight, stirring, and it truly left a mark on me as a reader.

And, most notably, Hartnett is bringing us tender fables of peace in a time when we really need it. Pascal longs to hear bloody, battle-scarred adventures of the war from the Lieutenant, but instead he brings unexpected messages of grace and peace and humility via the lesser-known, under-appreciated, black sheep of the world of symbols (this is, after all, where we get the phrase “dumb ass”) — the donkey. Mind you, though: Harnett still manages to convey to the child reader the devastating and bloody effects of war but without danger of scarring said reader. Impressive balancing act on her part.

Finally, this is also a beautifully packaged book — lovely, sturdy binding; a nice old-skool dignified typeset; pencil illustrations by Don Powers (my favorite one being of the animals under the angry sky of the Indian myth and less so the illustrations of the children and the soldier); and one of those ribbon book-marker thingies (sorry, I am a librarian and should know what they’re called) that is attached to the book’s spine.

It’s an unforgettable read. Let the donkey work his quiet, little powers on you.

5 comments to “The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett”

  1. Poor little donkey. I suspect it flew under so many radars this year is due to the tasteful and utterly ignorable cover. And this from the same publisher that gave us the unforgettable image on the front of “A Drowned Maiden’s Hair”. Tis to tsk.

  2. Speaking of . . . I am reading that now (A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, that is) — finally. Eisha and I plan to co-review when we’re both done. And can I just say MY GOD IT IS SO AWESOME. I. cannot. put. it. down.

    Okay, I’m done (and I sounded like a twelve-year old at that).

  3. Don’t know if you’ll check back here at all, but I wanted to quickly say, Fuse, that I’ve seen an alternate cover. Here it is. Both are simple, classy, tasteful (as you put it), but this one is a bit more embellished. Me likey.

  4. Hello, i am doing a book report on this story. I need help with a works cited. I need the Title, Author, City, Publisher, Date, and place. I would highly appreciate if you gave me this information, send it to the email that i provided. Thankyou,

  5. This book is amazing, to good to be true. The way Shepard describes his joourney to them is amazing. I am starting to write a text essay on thhe book. I AM SOOOO EXITED!!! Mabeye you could send me the main qoutes to the email provided that would be great!!! Thanx mim

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