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Barkbelly    by Cat Weatherill & Peter Brown order for
by Cat Weatherill
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, Paperback

Read an Excerpt

* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Step into the unique world of oral performance storyteller Cat Weatherill as she debuts with Barkbelly. Her refreshing style of lyrics is enchanting, magical, absorbing, and delectable. In the night, star sailor Moontar drifts through the night on his flying machine. Moontar urges the Purple-Plumed Night Parrot Bella to leave the bag of eggs alone. But she persists in chewing a hole in the bag, so that one egg falls to a farmer's field - 'it went unnoticed until the harvesters came.' In the village of Pumbleditch, harvesting is a hot and hardy task, working with harness rats who run inside wheel cages to get the tractors into action. Thud - village carpenter Gable Gantry is hit in the head when a tractor causes the egg to fly through the air. Gable wraps the wooden egg in his handkerchief, taking it to his home in Ferry Wood. His wife Pumpkin cleans the soiled egg, displaying it on the window ledge.

In a bitter cold winter season, as Gable attempts to tinder the fire, Pumpkin remembers the long forgotten egg, giving it to her husband as fuel. But the egg does not burn. Instead it moves rhythmically, twists, and - Bang! - it splits open. Out of it grows a wooden baby who calls 'Mama feed me'. Pumpkin and Gable welcome the baby as their own, after years of waiting. They name him Barkbelly. An unusual lad, he grows very fast and walks within the hour. Within a month, Barkbelly is as big as a ten-year old. He stops growing, but is very strong, speaks proficiently, and is headstrong. Pumpkin knows that their son has to get on with other children, so off to school goes Barkbelly. When classmates tell him he's different, Barkbelly retorts defiantly, 'I am! the same as you. But where you have flesh, I have wood.' Fish Patterson is impressed and invites Barkbelly to join his gang.

Carmenero's Circus comes to the village, featuring amazing performances and painted wagons. Best of all, each night Barkbelly listens to Jewel the storyteller spin tales. Gable arranges a job for his son at Muckledown Farm - Home of Champion Urchins, a business owned by Farmer Mallet Muckledown. Barkbelly won't be hurt by the sharp quills, and loves his job. At Summer's end, school resumes, and Barkbelly joins his mates in a game of Bull Run. The lineup includes Little Pan Evans (a youngster warned not to participate in the game because he is so tiny). Barkbelly hits the lineup, and Pan 'soared through the air and fell ... Pan was dead.' Fish hollers to Barkbelly 'Run, Run!' And so he does, for seven days and nights. He wants to release the pain inside by crying, but can't because he's wooden.

In Tythingtown, Barkbelly takes a job with the Tything Jam Co., where the jam is stirred by Stir Boys on bikes - 'the jam bubbled and spurted like hot lava above stoked flames.' Barkbelly is a magnificent stirrer, untiring no matter how long he pumps the bike and stirs the jam. One evening a fire breaks out in the factory. Barkbelly calls out that Taffeta Tything is still inside, and runs into the flames to save her. The media want to broadcast Barkbelly's heroic rescue, but he refuses, not wanting to appear in the papers. Again he runs for three days and nights. Sheltered in a small cave, Barkbelly yearns for 'a safe harbor'.

The Carmenero's Circus crew recognize Barkbelly on the roadside, and take him along to the village of Appleforth. Mr. Carmenero hires Barkbelly as the Cannonball Kid. Jewel, still his favorite storyteller, tells him about the island of Asherpeake, a place where alikes of Barkbelly reside. He makes the painful decision to leave his circus friends to board a ship that he hopes will take him to his real family. As he departs, Jewel wishes Barkbelly well: 'May the sun warm your day / And the moon guard your night. / May hope be your lantern / And love be your shield / And dreams be the boots that carry you home.' More adventures await Barkbelly, who learns that there is good and bad in the world, slavery and prejudice, honesty and dishonesty, what real family is, that he is not invincible, and that freedom is the right of every living being.

Weatherill's tale blends adventure, fantasy and emotion, with exceptional imaging and phrasing, such as: 'a small stone cottage with mullioned windows and a moss green door… It was late autumn. There was a chill in the air and the stars were hanging low as lanterns.' Cat Weatherill, who lives in Wales, is a performance storyteller, appearing internationally at storytelling and literature festivals, on British radio and television, and at schools throughout the United Kingdom. She is working on a companion novel to Barkbelly entitled Snowbone. Illustrator Peter Brown's cover image of a boy running for his life captures the eye, while the illustrations inside show 'moody, full-page images' suitable to the story.

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