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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 31, 2005

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Goose Girl, Sky High, and Cucumbers

The stories we love are the ones that get inside us. Or rather, the ones that get us inside them, so that we feel ourselves a part of what's going on, invested in the outcome.

It's easy enough for a storyteller to make the audience cry. Show a child in a pitiable position and the tears pop out on cue, a reflex of our inborn tenderness for the helpless, the empathy for the young that gives communities a better chance of survival.

But there's a different kind of crying, the tears that come from love and pride, from relief and gratitude and joy.

These are the tears that come to our eyes at the sight of the flag flying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the tears we shed for homecome heroes who stride from ships and airplanes, or come forward haltingly on crutches or in wheelchairs, or in flag-draped coffins. We who identify with the story they fought for shed tears, not of pity, but of honor.

Theirs is a true story; but in the best of our fiction -- film or television or book or epic poem -- we also make ourselves part of other nations and communities, and experience honor even when it's in short supply, or harder to identify, in the real world.

Those are the best tears we shed at fictions, and the hardest for the storyteller to earn. It takes great care in the creation of the tale, for the burden of shaking off disbelief is far more difficult. When we reach for those emotions, we have to earn them, with painstaking detail, with worthy causes, with characters whose motives are, if not pure, then comprehensible and right.

A Man for All Seasons and Gandhi are movies that achieved this for me -- though neither one is, strictly speaking, fictional. The storyteller had this crutch to lean on: that the man in the tale once lived and did and said much of what the film portrayed.

When the story is purely fictional, real nobility is harder to earn, because we know that someone made it all up, and the feelings we're being asked to feel are the goal, not the byproduct, of the story.

That's part of the reason why Lord of the Rings is such a splendid literary achievement: Tolkien gave us heroics in an unheroic age, nobility that drives out cynicism. But what other writers can do as well?

I submit one for your perusal. I reviewed Shannon Hale's Princess Academy a few weeks ago, a young adult novel that deserved to have adults take it seriously. Because of that book, I sought out Hale's more famous book from a couple of years ago: Goose Girl.

This retelling of a Grimm fairy tale (which means that it was a story told by women to children and only collected by the Grimms) far transcends its simple origins.

Ani is the crown princess in a land where it is the eldest child of either sex who inherits the throne. But from birth she has been a disappointment to her mother, a Queen who has the gift of speaking to people and being admired and believed. Ani has no such gift -- instead, she has the knack for speaking to birds.

At first it is the swans that draw her, so that when she is forbidden to speak to animals, she tries to run away and goes to the swans for comfort. But she was too young, was found and brought back and raised to be queen herself someday, though she has (she thinks) neither the desire nor the talent for it.

But her mother sees her lack of ability and her resentment, and at a crucial moment names her second child, a son, as her heir, and sends her daughter Ani away to marry the heir to the throne of a dangerous and belligerent nation on their borders. The queen has taken the action that she thinks will bring peace to her nation -- and provide it with a good and willing ruler.

Ani could have borne this, except that on the way to her new husband and kingdom she is betrayed and cast adrift in a world filled with danger. She finds herself, not a queen, but a goose girl -- though a very good one, once she masters the intricacies of the quirky language of the geese.

Through this very personal and real story, where Hale uses her extraordinary talent of building communities of characters that we believe in and care about, Hale also creates a clear picture of the affairs of states and the way that culture impacts on policy.

The result is a story that is both deep and wide, and when we reach the wholly satisfying yet painful end, we are filled with all those feelings that only the best of stories bring to us: The love and gratitude, relief and joy and pride, that come from seeing people we know well act with honor when the danger is great and the stakes are high for everyone.

Dare I say it this early in her career? Shannon Hale is already, after only a few books, one of our best writers of fantasy. She is also one of those rare storytellers who can bring a jaded old reviewer like me to well-earned tears.

By all means, share this book with youngsters -- that's what the cover says you should do, and they'll thank you for it. (Including boys, if they're sturdy enough to read a tale that stars a girl -- I always was.)

But don't use a lack of children as an excuse for not reading it yourself. This is a novel that is every bit as good for adults as for children -- or better, because we will recognize that in the real world, too, such honor is both rare and sorely needed.

*

I am horrified to find myself strongly recommending a film directed by the same guy who brought us Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, but Mike Mitchell is that director, and the movie I'm truly delighted to tell you about is the teen-superhero comedy Sky High.

The high concept -- literally -- is a high school, floating a mile or so above the Earth's surface, for kids with super powers.

Will Stronghold is the son of the two greatest superheroes on earth, but his own superpowers have not yet shown themselves -- if he has them at all. He's been trying to fool his parents into thinking that he has super-strength, so he dreads the humiliation of having to reveal his insufficiency. Especially because, given who his parents are, he is expected to be absolutely stunning.

It's no accident that the kids have to reveal their stage of superpower development in a gym-class setting with a completely unsympathetic coach (Bruce Campbell) whose only power is a voice you can hear for miles.

Those with lame powers -- like the ability to glow a little in the dark, or turn oneself into a puddle of slime -- are consigned to "hero support," and Dave Foley is brilliantly tragic as the forgotten former sidekick of Will's father, now reduced to trying to help young sidekicks feel good about their secondary role in life.

Will ends up on the sidekick track, persecuted along with his other friends -- until the coolest girl in school, Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) takes a sudden intense interest in him. Naturally, he falls for her, ignoring the fact that his lifelong best friend, Layla (ethereally portrayed by Danielle Panabaker), is in love with him.

Meanwhile, Warren Peace, the son of an supervillain that Will's father sent to prison is an angry loner who has it in for Will. (This seems to be actor Steven Strait's first film -- but it certainly won't be his last. Look for him in some sultry roles on The O.C. and Desperate Housewives, unless he's lucky and gets leading man parts right away.)

This is, at first glance, a cross between The Incredibles and six different John Hughes high school comedies (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Some Kind of Wonderful). Paul Hernandez's script is clever and sassy without losing the reality of the core characters.

The parents (and other adults) are iconic, as in a John Hughes comedy, but their roles are played with admirable verve and wit by Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston.

Everything depended on Michael Angarano as Will Stronghold. A child actor in films since 1996, he never quite achieved stardom. Maybe that will change. He never lost the reality of his character, and managed to be funny, real, dynamic, and sweet all at once -- qualities that I haven't seen in a late-teens actor since Matthew Broderick.

This is an action comedy -- it's meant to be amusing and exciting all at once. It certainly worked for me.

*

Things I learned from my garden this year:

Peas can get nasty fungus infections that look like they're getting insufficient water if you don't know what you're seeing. Early spraying solves the problem, but if you wait too long, spraying can't save a dead plant.

Cucumbers planted in good soil and well watered are so prolific that you don't have enough friends to give them away to. And if you leave them on the vine till they're too big, the seeds get hard and it's basically inedible.

Cucumbers are also hard to find under the foliage. Yellow squashes, however, are vivid.

If you have space to grow 5 cucumber plants, 1 cantaloupe plant, and 1 squash plant, don't do it. Instead plant 2 cucumber plants, 4 cantaloupe plants, and 1 squash plant. It's a more useful balance, and most people would much rather have a cantaloupe as a gift than ten cucumbers.

I have always hated the taste of fresh green beans -- except for the delicate flavor of the slender green beans the French call haricots verts. I found a packet of string-bean seeds at our favorite nursery -- New Garden Nursery on Lawndale just north of Pisgah Church Road -- that had haricots verts in parentheses, so I took the plunge and planted the seeds.

There's a reason why "Jack and the Beanstalk" wasn't "Jack and the Pumpkin Vine." Beanstalks make even the fastest-growing melon vines look like they just aren't trying. I put up frames higher than my head, and the plants twined right up them. Kudzu with fruit.

The beans did not look like haricots verts. Some were yellow, some were green, and all were thicker and lumpier-looking. Maybe that just means we didn't harvest them soon enough, but the truth is, very few of them ever looked as slender and long as the French beans.

However, they had exactly the flavor of haricot verts, so who cares about the looks?

Beanpods grow so fast that we'd strip off every bean we could see on one day, and two days later find enough for another side dish. We didn't plant so many we got sick of them or had to give them away. It was just enough to have lots of fresh delicious beans for the past month.

If you pinch off all the blossoms from basil and go away on a book signing tour for a week at a time, when you come back, it's like the sorcerer's apprentice -- everywhere you pinched, there are now six blossom spears. But fresh basil is one of the best things about summer.

Bees are our friends. Check to see if they're nestled among the basil blooms before you pinch them off.

It doesn't do any good to own a spice-drying machine if you never remember to harvest the spices and dry them.

Small pots dry out so quickly during the heat of summer that you have to water them every day.

Red "grape" tomatoes yield so much from a single plant that we're getting fresh little tomatoes for snacking and salads every day.

Those tiny tear-drop-shaped yellow tomatoes are the most delicious I've ever tasted.

I'd never heard of "blossom rot" or "end rot" before, but it sure is a nasty disappointment to pick a gorgeous looking Roma tomato only to discover that the bottom of it is black and mucky.

Those Japanese beetle bags really work. It's only a little disgusting to imagine what it looks like inside the bag when you've got about three pounds of bugs in various stages of death and dessication.

The clever-looking wooden frames we put up to support the vines we were growing did not work. They were too big around for the tendrils from melon and squash plants to encircle them, and their surface was too rough.

But the smooth metal frames I bought for the beans, peas, and tomatoes worked brilliantly -- for the melon vines too, unfortunately. I constantly had to nip those quick-growing little melon vines out of the pea patch.

We have only three planting beds -- two four-by-eight frames in the back yard, and a patch in the side yard that had lain fallow for a few years. It isn't enough room to do serious farming, but for salads and vegetables and herbs, it's plenty of room.

Busy people can take care of it with just the right amount of work. Your hands get dirty enough and your back and knees get tired enough that you feel like you've really earned the crops you get, but you don't have to work constantly to keep it weeded and harvested.

And it gave us plenty of crops -- more of some than we could handle.

As for my penchant for growing habanero peppers, even though they're so dangerous to work with -- let's just say that even a guy who won't ride roller coasters has to have something in his life to give him an adrenalin rush. For habanero planters, gardening is a blood sport.


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