The Flint Heart
Katherine and John Paterson, authors
John Rocco, illustrator
2011

I have a bit of hero worship going for Katherine Paterson. Just recently I picked up her Come Sing, Jimmy Jo (which I’ll review at some point) and immediately felt that I was in the hands of a master storyteller. The way she crafts her prose, the precision of her characterization, the delicate way she handles the hard issues in life–really, she is a master of the craft.

In addition, I’m also a huge, huge, huge fan of Victorian fairy tales. There are a number which are well known (Alice in Wonderland, anyone?). There are an equal number which are less well known, and that is a shame: George MacDonald’s Princess and Curdie books, Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River, Thackeray’s hilarious The Rose and the Ring to name a few. 

Which is why this book left me a bit disappointed: could it have lived up to its billing? A fairy tale from the early 20th century (almost Victorian!) “freely abridged” by one of my all-time favorite authors? Sign me up. Even better: illustrated by the likes of John Rocco (who did that great recent picture book Blackout which I’ll get around to reviewing one of these days).
The Patersons do a pretty good job with this “freely abridged” tale that is 100 years old now. But pretty good just doesn’t cut it for these masters. To be fair, Rocco’s illustrations are wonderful. No complaints there. And the Patersons fill this tale with all those zany, madcap, seemingly random details that I love about the lighter Victorian fairy tales.* The plotting is solid, the characterization terrific, the details perfect.

It’s the tone, though, that really bugs me: it’s just a little too chatty. Many of the Victorian fairy tales are slightly irreverent sounding, so perhaps they sounded more casual and chatty to a Victorian era reader. But I just don’t like to see words like “stupid” crop up in a tale like this (which only occurred once and was not in reference to a person). The first part which takes place in the Stone Age is the most chatty and, therefore, the part I liked the least. The Patersons hit their stride by halfway through the book, for the most part, and it’s an enjoyable story to read. I doubt many of my young friends will be put off by the tone–or as put off as I was.

A short plot summary for those unfamiliar with the original tale: during the Stone Age, a man creates a flint heart with the help of the Thunder Spirit. Anyone who wears it turns evil and unbearable to be around. The man (Phuttphutt) who requests this heart wants to rule the village. Which he does. When he dies, they bury the heart with him. Fast forward to the 1800s or so and to a nice farmer who digs up the heart. He becomes insufferable, and 2 of his 13 children seek help from the fairies and their friends. They succeed in removing the heart only to see it wreak havoc on the Jacky Toads and then the animal kingdom before finally seeing the heart destroyed.

I encourage anyone who enjoys Victorian fairy tales in particular and fantasy in general to check this out. Maybe I’m being too hard on the “tone” here–I definitely think there are children out there who will really enjoy this and I wouldn’t mind owning a copy myself. It kinda grew on me.

Recommended for lovers of Victorian fantasy; children of all ages

*I use the term “lighter” not to mean shallow or trite; rather, some Victorian fairy tales are more jovial and absurd (i.e. Alice) while some are much more dark in theme (i.e. death in At the Back of the North Wind). The best Victorian tales, whether light or dark, are complex and full of terrific details–which The Flint Heart represents nicely. And, for anyone who’s still reading: Thackeray’s Rose and Ring is one of my all-time faves and Flint Heart reminded me of its tone and “feel” although the plots are radically different.

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