“But nothing hides the color of the lights that shine…”

In May 2008, one year after the death of Lloyd Alexander, I read his autobiographical novel The Gawgon and the Boy and wondered, “How many non-Prydain books did my favorite childhood author write?” To my amazement, I found 30 books (not counting picture books and translations from French) and set about writing short blog reviews of all of them.

Four years later, this blog series is complete. I’m genuinely sorry to bid adieu to Lloyd Alexander, but I hope these posts will serve as a starting point for adults who want to reacquaint themselves with an old friend—or find a new novel to read with their kids.

And Let the Credit Go (1955)
My Five Tigers (1956)
August Bondi: Border Hawk (1958)
Janine is French (1959)
My Love Affair with Music (1960)
The Flagship Hope: Aaron Lopez (1960)
Park Avenue Vet (1962)
Fifty Years in the Doghouse (1963)
Time Cat (1963)
The Chronicles of Prydain: The Book of Three (1964)
The Chronicles of Prydain: The Black Cauldron (1965)
The Chronicles of Prydain: The Castle of Llyr (1966)
The Chronicles of Prydain: Taran Wanderer (1967)
The Chronicles of Prydain: The High King (1968)
The Foundling and Other Tales from Prydain (1970)
The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian (1970)
The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man (1973)
The Wizard in the Tree (1974)
The Town Cats and Other Tales (1977)
The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha (1978)
The Westmark Trilogy: Westmark (1981)
The Westmark Trilogy: The Kestrel (1982)
The Westmark Trilogy: The Beggar Queen (1984)
The Vesper Holly Adventures: The Illyrian Adventure (1986)
The Vesper Holly Adventures: The El Dorado Adventure (1987)
The Vesper Holly Adventures: The Drackenberg Adventure (1988)
The Vesper Holly Adventures: The Jedera Adventure (1989)
The Vesper Holly Adventures: The Philadelphia Adventure (1990)
The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen
The Arkadians (1995)
The Iron Ring (1997)
Gypsy Rizka (1999)
The Gawgon and the Boy (2001)
The Rope Trick (2002)
The Vesper Holly Adventures: The Xanadu Adventure (2005)
The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio (2007)

* * *

Some unsorted final thoughts:

In book after book for children, Lloyd Alexander manages to plumb serious moral and ethical issues without mentioning religion or sex. I’m not sure many young-adult writers would have either the self-restraint or the philosophical forbearance to pull that off.

The Westmark series—Westmark, The Kestrel, and The Beggar Queen—is Alexander’s masterpiece, a moving and mature story about the morality of violence and the profound cost of revolution and war. It deserves to be better known.

Although it’d be offensive (and futile, and boring) to suss out Alexander’s politics, I’m amused by the extent to which bureaucrats and politicians irk him, not only in the Westmark books, where “statesman” is a dirty word, but also in The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastianwhere a tyrannical government dehumanizes its subjects. The Wizard in the Tree is blatantly about politics and money, and the governing class doesn’t come off well in either The Town Cats and Other Tales or The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man. (“I should add that she always wins!” Alexander once crowed about Gypsy Rizka. “And those idiot town dignitaries always lose, which is exactly the way it ought to be.”)

Of all Alexander’s adult nonfiction, I found My Love Affair with Music the most satisfying; it’s about the sweet frustration of living with your own limitations.

Even though The Arkadians is a fairly formulaic book, I loved it, because it includes something I never thought I’d see: Lloyd Alexander in-jokes.

Alexander writes with a concision that all storytellers would be wise to study. He makes it look easy to convey imagination and wit in fast, tight, unassuming prose.

Did Alexander often fall back on a familiar array of characters and plots? Sure, but I think plenty of writers spend their lives trying to recreate the platonic form of the most important story in their minds. (“I have to hope that maybe this time I got it right,” Alexander said of his final novel.) For a thoughtful take on this question, see Jason Fisher’s 2007 Lingwë post.

On the whole, Alexander’s novels are less sentimental than I’d expected. Like the best fantasists, he’s skeptical of escapism, but his general cheerfulness means that every bittersweet ending comes as a surprise.

Lloyd Alexander was the “Old Cricket” who dispensed wisdom on the final page of Cricket magazine! How fitting.

Many of Alexander’s later books are traced with sadness, none more than the mystical The Rope Trick, the rare novel that appears to divide Alexander’s fans.

* * *

To everyone who’s read, commented, linked, and emailed me about these reviews in the past four years: thank you!

“And I listen to the chanting, and all the lies the wise ones tell…”

[Here’s the final post in a series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

“I have finished my life’s work,” Lloyd Alexander reportedly said after completing his final novel, The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio. Published posthumously, the book is a light romp through a mythical Arabia that offers readers one last tour of many of its author’s favorite themes, freshened by a conviction that dreamers and fools can end up in better places than they’re able to imagine.

Lacking the necessary focus to prosper in his merchant uncle’s business—shades of Alexander’s own youth?—the bumbling, bookwormish Carlo (a “chooch,” or loser, in the patois of his island home) searches for treasure by following a map that bears little resemblance to reality. Along the way, he gathers a typical Lloyd Alexander ensemble, including Shira, a capable heroine; Salomon, an ancient wanderer who delights in every leaf and tree; and Baksheesh, an ornery, obsequious servant. What keeps their adventure from growing conventional is this book’s slippery sense of unreality, as Carlo and his friends meet a bookseller whose market-stall vanishes, unremembered by its neighbors; a cave-bound artist who paints things that haven’t yet happened; and a merchant who sells custom dreams on bottle and flask at a time.

There’s a villain here, but like many of Alexander’s least interesting bad guys, he’s offstage for most of the action. He’s remarkable, though, for threatening a young woman with rape; even if Alexander never uses the word, it’s the only time I can remember a hint of it in any of his novels. More intriguing in Carlo Chuchio is the hero’s maturation, defined by a merciful act that leads to a death. Even at the end of his life, Alexander was haunted by the possibility that we remain guilty of misdeeds even when our intentions are good.

Alexander also wants us to be suspicious of storytellers. “Idlers! Layabouts! Lazy to the marrow of their bones,” Baksheesh complains, voicing the author’s self-deprecation. “Notorious liars, without a grain of truth among all of them put together.” And yet Alexander adapts the Middle Eastern legends, as he did with every mythos from India to Wales, for a reason. If this book comes off a bit like the old Sinbad movies, populated by camel-pullers and warrior nomads speaking broken English, only a true grouch can complain. After all, Lloyd Alexander books aren’t about actual places, but something far more real. “I would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the fools of one country and the fools of another,” the wandering Salomon notes. “Folly is our common bond.”

“Send me your warning siren, as if I could ever hide…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

“I have been, to some extent, in situations like the ones I described,” Lloyd Alexander told curious children, without further detail, when discussing The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen. “One of the most difficult things about writing those books was dredging up a number of very terrible memories.” If The Kestrel is Alexander’s war novel, then The Beggar Queen, the third and final Westmark novel, is his warning about the costs of revolution, even when violence is necessary.

Two years after enduring a war started by traitorous aristocrats, Westmark is still a monarchy, but a devolving one, with avowed revolutionaries holding high office and breaking up noble estates into smaller farms. Theo, the queen’s consort, has little to show for his life as a bureaucrat. Harvests are failing, while royalists, constitutionalists, and revolutionaries are falling into factions. Overnight, Westmark becomes a dictatorship under Cabbarus, the villain of the first novel, and ideological enemies again become reluctant allies.

Suffused with casual brutality, The Beggar Queen plausibly depicts tyranny, and Alexander finds bleak humor in it:

It had always been the good pleasure of the kings of Westmark to ornament their capital city and immortalize themselves at the same time. Some put up statues of themselves on horseback. Others preferred works of less equestrian and more civic interest: promenades, public walks, and gardens. Augustine the Great enlarged the Juliana and installed its famous bells. Mickle’s father, in the earlier, happier days of his reign, built the fountain of the great square.

Cabbarus followed in the example of previous rulers. With a difference. He had not yet raised a statue of himself, although he looked forward confidently to one day doing so. He had not yet proposed any monument or memorial. Instead, in the first months of his directorate, he offered Marianstat something of immediate, practical use: not a token of his own immortality, but a demonstration of the mortality of others.

He built a gallows.

The Beggar Queen might have been a direct commentary on fantasy if readers had been asked to choose between idealistic revolutionaries and a liberalizing, well-intentioned monarchy, but Alexander is concerned here with realism, creating a police state that’s dishearteningly believable—as are his depictions of death, suicide, and torture, even when he treats terrible moments elliptically or allusively. The revolution in Marianstat, the capital city of Westmark, is full of bravery and sacrifice, but even when it gets exciting, Alexander doesn’t romanticize it. Street fighting, palace-storming, barricade-building, and scenes of bourgeois revolt represent both the hope and the horror of revolution: that sometimes it takes on a life of its own.

I’m reluctant to say more about the Westmark series for fear of spoiling it for new readers. I’ll say only that Alexander himself is elusive in these books; it’s hard to know where his personal experience ends and fiction begins. The vengeful Justin, eager to shed blood in the name of republicanism, seems more than a little influenced by Alexander’s depiction of John Brown 25 years earlier, and at least one historical scene from August Bondi:Border Hawk recurs in The Beggar Queen, where it’s put to good use. Still, what makes Westmark memorable is that Lloyd Alexander passionately reassembles his life and work—stock characters, historical interests, war experiences, and decades of brooding—to create his finest story about the individual moral burdens of political acts.

The Beggar Queen ends abruptly, as if Alexander were exhausted from having set Westmark on paper at last. It’s one of his least sentimental endings, but fittingly so, dictated as it is by what one character calls “the hard facts of statecraft.” Slow to judgment and unburdened by ephemera, the Westmark books teach children a rare adult lesson: Government is a hard, messy business, but we fail at it only when we stop querying our consciences, even if we earn endings that aren’t entirely happy.

“On the tall cliffs, they were getting older, sons and daughters…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

The Kestrel is one of Lloyd Alexander’s smartest and most mature books. It’s also his most unpleasant—not because it’s a bad book, but because it’s painfully personal in its recollection of war.

Having spent the first Westmark novel introducing his version of 18th-century Europe, with its grasping political factions and tottering monarchy, Alexander seems poised to pit his characters against each other in an ongoing debate about political philosophy. Believing that people are born good, Theo argues for a monarchy kept in check by three consuls elected by a parliament. Equating monarchy with tyranny and disdainful of aristocracy, the revolutionary Florian continues to advocate a republic. Soon, though, none of this matters, as philosophical opponents become allies of convenience, and The Kestrel becomes a novel entirely about war.

The war with neighboring Regia is the work of traitorous Westmark aristocrats who deplore their rapidly liberalizing monarchy. Alexander despises statesmen who start wars, but in The Kestrel he casts a nonjudgmental eye on the people forced to wage them, from royal ministers who reluctantly impose martial law to normally gentle people who become legendary for bloodshed in battle.

The Kestrel demands more of young readers than any other Alexander novel. The cast of characters is vast: street waifs, satirists, revolutionaries, commoners, con artists, military officers, aristocrats, doctors, monarchs, bureaucrats, farmers, poets, washer women, courtiers, constables, and spies. As heroes become killers, whole chapters read like matter-of-fact military reports, sometimes with pages of indirect speech about tactics and logistics. Armies pillage, field commanders execute noncombatants, and mobs of peasants loot great manor houses. Days, weeks, and months pass without comment, as if the details are just too much to bear.

Even for an adult, The Kestrel can be a difficult read. No other Lloyd Alexander book contains as much violence and death, and while it’s never gratuitous, and in only one instance is it graphic, it’s still unnerving. Fresh faces die, as friends from the first book commit terrible acts and struggle to justify themselves. The cover of the 2002 Firebird paperback edition of The Kestrel calls Alexander a “Grand Master of Fantasy,” but the Westmark books are bereft of the consoling mysteries of the genre. As the author himself explains on the inside back cover, this series is his effort to confront wartime experiences only hinted at in previous books:

Vague shadows of Westmark and the volumes that followed had been in my head for half a dozen years before I was able even to put a word on a page. World War II was long over, and I had come home from Europe with my Parisian wife and daughter. I had been writing happily for a good while, and had discovered that stories of fantasy worlds were, for me, the best way to express my attitudes and feelings about people, problems, and relationships in our real world.

Still, questions stuck in my mind: the uses and abuses of power, not only the conflict between good and evil but–far more difficult–the conflict between good and good, noble ideas broken by violence even in a good cause; and, in the midst of tragedies, events that were hysterically, incongruously funny. I have no idea why Westmark chose to be written precisely when it did. More surprisingly, I found myself dredging up distant memories of what I had seen and known myself in combat. I did not find answers to questions raised and expect I never will. Nor was it an attempt to exorcise my own demons. No, I keep and cherish those demons. I like to believe they’re my conscience.

Questions of conscience haunt The Kestrel. How can a leader live with himself when he saves the state by spreading propaganda and imposing unjust laws? How can a man judge another’s life-or-death decision without standing in his place? How can a bloodstained warlord return to normal life? Alexander has no answers; we carry our moral burdens for life.

And yet amid war, there’s love in The Kestrel, too, unromantic but real, from the dutiful officer adoring his young queen to a street urchin who falls for her benefactor. Love also offers the promise of peace, if not redemption, for broken warriors:

He hesitated. Mickle was watching him closely. Finally, he said, “Yes, I do love you. Now. As much as I’m able.”

Mickle gave him a questioning glance, then said lightly, “Does that mean more? Or less?”

“It only means—” Theo began. “It only means that I’ve hated so much for so long, I’m sick with it. I don’t recognize myself. I’m not even sure I know what loving is.”

Mickle nodded. “I suppose,” she said quietly, “I’ll have to wait until you find out.”

Parents of especially sensitive Prydain fans may want to read The Kestrel before their children do, or even with them, but I hope they won’t be put off by its seriousness. Right up to the shocking turn on its final pages, the book is full of brutality and loss, but Alexander’s humane sensibility never falters. For young-adult readers, there’s no better place to start coming to terms with the notion that the fairy-tale kingdoms they adore are doomed to be eclipsed by human nature.

“But the world spins on regardless, which is lucky for you and me…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. The second and third Westmark novels will be covered in subsequent posts. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

I’ll put this simply: Westmark is Lloyd Alexander’s masterpiece. Published in three volumes from 1981 to 1984, the series deserves to be at least as well known as Alexander’s beloved Prydain books. In fact, this story of a monarchy on the verge of painful modernization ought to be the next challenge for all maturing Prydain readers. I suspect that in the past 30 years, no other series for young adults has offered a more thoughtful look at the morality of violence. Adults will find it intriguing, even disquieting, too.

Westmark, the first novel in the trilogy, is populated by Alexander’s stock characters, but the world they inhabit is distinctively troubled. The kingdom of Westmark is plagued by a broken monarch mourning his lost daughter; a greedy courtier is de facto tyrant; the aristocracy is either corrupt or flirting with revolution; the streets teem with beggars; and there isn’t a trace of magic in sight. No fantasy, Westmark is the remarkable start of a 700-page series, a sort of young-adult Les Miserables that abandons the conceits of sword-and-sorcery kingdoms to ask difficult questions about tyranny, government, and violence, both individual and political, in a setting that resembles 18th-century Europe—with all the complexity that implies.

The moral development of Theo, an orphan turned printer’s apprentice, is at the heart of the Westmark series. Naive and relatively happy, Theo “loved virtue, despised injustice, and was always slightly hungry.” He unthinkingly wishes death to tyrants and blithely considers himself kindly, good-natured, and honorable—until he shocks himself by committing an act of violence. Sinking into a personal morass of theft, grifting, and lies, Theo realizes he doesn’t even know his own heart, especially when confronted with a second chance. “Killing is wrong. I believe that. I still do,” he insists. “But now I wonder. Do I believe it because I wanted to be a decent man. Or—because I’m a coward?”

Westmark complicates the question when Theo falls in with a band of revolutionaries led by the charismatic Florian, one of the most intelligent characters Alexander ever wrote. Picking up on anti-monarchic skepticism introduced a decade earlier in The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian, this first Westmark novel sets the stage for grand-scale political drama—and some big philosophical questions. When Torrens, the exiled royal surgeon, takes pains to distinguish between monarchy and tyranny, the revolutionary aristocrat Florian argues that no monarchy is worth preserving:

“Preserve it?” returned Florian. “Preserve a power fixed by accident of birth? Unearned, unmerited, only abused? You have been sadly misled, Doctor, if you come to me for that. Legitimate monarchy? The only legitimate rulers are the people of Westmark.”

“That, sir, is a dream. I do not share it with you. There are abuses; I do not deny it. They must be corrected. But not through destruction. If I have a patient with a broken leg, I mend the leg. I do not bleed him to death. I do what is possible and practical.”

“So do I,” said Florian.

Is there any other young-adult novel in which two temporary political allies hold a good-faith debate about the relative merits of monarchy and parliamentary democracy? Amazingly, Alexander lets their argument simmer unresolved. Theo and the reader are left to ruminate, while Westmark darkly hints at bloodshed to come.

Already bereft of magic, Westmark continues the skepticism about government and bureaucracy that often tempers Alexander’s whimsy, from The Town Cats to The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian. On the first page of Westmark, Alexander suggests limits to bureaucratized charity when he tells us that the “town fathers” are responsible for Theo’s apprenticeship: “instead of sending him away to a King’s Charity House, where he would be made miserable, they arranged the same for him locally.” By the second page, we learn that Cabbarus, Chief Minister of Westmark, routinely arrests and executes printers and publishers. He rose to power, we later discover, because he possesses “the virtue of diligence with an immense capacity for drudgery” and is “willing and eager to accept the duties the other ministers found boring.” He now has “his fingers in everything from the purchase of lobsters to the signature of death warrants.” The villain of Westmark isn’t a distant shadow, as in Prydain, or a stock tyrant who shows up for the climax, as in Sebastian. Cabbarus appears in the flesh by the fifth chapter of Westmark and reappears throughout the book. No “dark lord,” he is shameless, wicked, and plausibly human.

The kingdom Cabbarus schemes to control is equally plausible in its tyrannized misery. In Westmark, appeals to the government go unanswered, stormtroopers check travelers’ papers, and the existence of a “beggar factory” is well known: “Youngsters bought or stolen, then broken past mending, sliced up, squeezed into jars to make them grow very crooked. Sold off to a master who pockets whatever charity’s thrown to them.” Westmark swams with urchins whom fortune will never bless; if they’re extremely lucky, they may learn how to read.

Finding himself in league with con artists, Theo wonders why one of his colleagues, the portly, mustachioed Las Bombas, so dramatically embellishes his adventures. Theo’s exchange with Las Bombas’s footman is telling:

“The Salamanca Lancers! Great Copta! Trebizonia—I wonder if he even knows where it is. Why does he put out such nonsense?”

“No business of mine,” said Musket. “For all I know, he can’t stomach the world as he finds it. Can you?”

Theo did not answer . . . He had been more comfortable when he had been able to judge Las Bombas a complete rogue.

There are things you expect to find in a Lloyd Alexander novel—decency, the challenges of maturity, trenchant moral questions—but his usual themes really shine when they’re dropped into a world ruled by mere humans rather than wizards. “Books are one thing; how the world works now is another,” shrugs Theo’s mentor Anton, but Westmark, though consistently sad, isn’t depressing. It’s a somber, thoughtful study of how the immature conscience grapples with moral ambiguity when deprived of the comforts of fantasy.

“Come down off your throne, and leave your body alone…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

In 1970, two years after completing his Prydain series, Lloyd Alexander turned to a disenchanted world. Packed with narrow escapes, feline heroics, and political oppression, The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian stars a young violinist cast out of a baronial court after offending a pompous count. As Sebastian learns to eke out a living in a fantasy recreation of 18th-century Europe, he has to decide what he really thinks about royalty, tyranny, and revolution. In a world without magic, his opinions, and the actions that proceed from them, have consequences, mitigated only by the cruel mystery of music.

By now, Alexander had established his stock characters: the naive but maturing hero; the tomboyish princess inclined to royal snobbery; and the self-deprecating author stand-in, in this case Quicksilver, who leads a traveling theater troupe. Through Quicksilver, Alexander defends his life’s work by lauding fiction’s simple truth:

“Make-believe and moonshine? Say naught against them! Before the Regent’s bloodhounds snatched away my Harlequin and Columbine, we used to put up a play that did handsomely for us. No more than a nursery tale of a swineherd who killed a dragon and married a princess—with your obedient servant as the dragon. Moonshine? On the face of it, if you will. But I’ll tell you, my lad, there wasn’t a plowboy or kitchenmaid, doddering grandsire or crone of eighty, who didn’t see themselves as the brave swineherd or fair-haired princess. For a little time, at least. And were none the worse for it. Indeed, I’d say they were all the better! Make-believe? There’s more truth at the bottom of it than you’ll find in the Glorietta’s Court Gazette!”

More complicated is Alexander’s approach to music, embodied by a cursed fiddle:

“Lelio called it so,” Quicksilver answered, “and claimed each owner came to grief because of it. As he said, they weren’t the ones who owned the fiddle, but it was the fiddle that owned them; and if they hoped to get music from it, it would cost them dearly. According to Leilo, one poor fellow wasted away the longer he played, as if the fiddle were drinking his life like a glass of wine. Another took leave of his wits altogether, and died a-babbling the fiddle was to blame.”

As it turns out, Leilo the clown suffered for his unfulfilled art:

“I think his heart broke because he knew the fiddle had music in it that even he could never hope to play. He could hear it in his head, but never have it in his fingers. It ate away at him, night and day, until he sickened with brooding over it. And so the fiddle brought him grief, too; and took his life as surely as it had all the others. He told me this as he lay dying in this very wagon, and at the end he begged me to smash the accursed thing, to break it into splinters and burn it.”

More than ten years after My Love Affair with Music, Alexander found a way to channel his frustrations with the fiddle into fiction, using music to enhance a novel that flirts, ultimately, with political questions.

As in the Prydain books, the villain—here the unscrupulous Regent of Hamelin-Loring—remains offstage until the very end, but his invisibility isn’t about creating an eerie aura of mystery. Instead, the Regent typifies a bad leader who vexes his subjects impersonally, even across vast distances. Alexander sees vestigial virtue in monarchy and suggests that parliamentarianism is the next tricky step in a kingdom’s evolution, but to his mind (and to my great delight), the worst consequence of tyranny is mindless, dehumanizing bureaucracy. When the men of Hamelin-Loring leave their homes to perform mandatory roadwork, the government seizes their land—on the grounds that their farms are now untenanted. “We obey one law—and another punishes us for it!” howls one worker. “Meantime, the Regent lines his pockets all the more.”

The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian is a lovely novel, but when you know what follows it, the book feels tentative. In the early 1980s, Alexander would think far more deeply about tyranny, political violence, revolution, and the human tendency to romanticize monarchy in his superb Westmark trilogy—also set in a reimagined 18th-century Europe, and again without a hint of magic. Sebastian deserved its 1971 National Book Award for delivering a rousing story about friendship, maturation, and music, but Alexander needed three more books to disentangle this novel’s political premises—and a decade to ponder the adult implications of fantasy worlds.

“It seems the music keeps them quiet, there is no other way…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

“Musical taste is such a private affair that I would no more criticize a man’s choice of music than his choice of a wife,” Lloyd Alexander writes in My Love Affair with Music, his fourth book for adults. “I might question his judgment a little or wonder, out of idle curiosity, what he sees in her. Beyond that, it is entirely his affair.” Alexander apparently expected less discretion from his readers, earnestly justifying his own passion in a memoir that hits a series of wise and frankly surprising notes.

In light, concise prose, My Love Affair with Music skips from anecdote to anecdote: how, as a child, Alexander learned to plink out songs by slowing down piano rolls; how he loved to sneak into the opera for free during intermission; and how, as an adult, he took up the violin, beguiled by the instrument’s “perverse, diabolical personality.” Few people alive can recall the more genteel approach to music Alexander describes here, a lost world in which records were expensive and studying classical music was an ambitious yet common pastime.

Beyond its genial glimpse of yesteryear, what makes My Love Affair with Music engaging is Alexander’s willingness to fulfill the promise of the book’s title. From the outset, music isn’t simply something he hears or plays, but an entity with which he has a concupiscent relationship. Here’s young Lloyd on the eve of his first piano lesson:

That night I tossed and turned in bed, and I am sure I had the hot forehead and dry throat of a man about to approach his beloved for the first time (although I did not think in those terms then).

With jarring sexuality, he writes of the futility of chasing musical highs:

Yet hearing something like the Brahms 4th or the Tchaikowsky 6th for the first time—or the second or third—played magnificently, under a brilliant conductor, overwhelmed me. I underwent all the surprise, and exhilaration, of a man whose beloved suddenly bites him in the midst of an embrace. The first few experiences may be exciting, even charming. After a time, it simply grows painful…

Sometimes, he simply describes childhood awkwardness with witty apprehension:

None of us looked forward to Miss LeBeau’s course, not entirely because we hated her or music—although many of us had strong feelings on both accounts—but mainly because it followed gym class. I for one usually arrived a little late, still damp from the required shower, clothes mostly unbuttoned, my underwear put on backwards as often as not, binding me in a clammy grip each time I sat down. Like gym, the class was double sized, so that as many of us as possible could be exposed to music all at once, for greater efficiency and less waste motion, something like a mass vaccination. After a few minutes, the students began to exude the foxy odour of young people packed closely together while above it rose the post-gymnasium miasma.

My Love Affair with Music teems with memories that make it, arguably, the most personal of Alexander’s early books. He admits to shedding tears over a beloved piano teacher, he writes ruefully about betraying an awkward student teacher, and he casts himself as a drunken fool banging out jazz on a piano in the middle of the night while visiting the home of prim family friends. If Lloyd Alexander later wrote perceptively about the hard task of growing up, perhaps it’s because he remembered his own youth so keenly, and with such exquisite embarrassment.

Of all Alexander’s early autobiographical books, My Love Affair with Music also contains the most full recounting of his time in Europe during World War II. With typical self-deprecation, he describes being assigned to play the cymbals and the glockenspiel in an Army band before taking up international folk singing. “I collected songs,” he quips, “with the absorption of a philatelist on the trail of a rare blue triangle.” Sneaking away from his detachment in a jeep, he plays a broken piano outside a shattered French house and joins a quest for a full set of recordings of Schubert’s Die Forelle, accompanying a German-American colleague to confront the German neighbors who betrayed his family. Alexander finds sufficient music in his Army adventures that it’s easy not to notice that he elides most of the actual war. With half a century of hindsight, I wonder if he ever recorded those experiences, or left the worst of them untold.

In 1960, Alexander seemed on the verge of becoming little more than a gentle humorist who mined his own life for amiable books. Stories about a workplace choir hark back to his banking memoir; his obsession with the violin irritates the cats he wrote about so fondly; and his fondness for Parisian street music recalls his book about his French wife.

Fortunately, My Love Affair with Music also looks forward, unknowingly. In a chapter set in the early 1940s, Alexander’s mania for musical instruments takes him to a pawn shop:

Another attraction, stored far in the back amid a jackstraw heap of old furniture, was a harp. Most of its strings broken, dangling from the pegs, the rest completely out of tune, the harp with its fluted pillar rose up like a Greek ruin. I could not look at the curve of the neck without feeling my whole body trying to imitate its sweep.

I moved out one of the chairs, sat down and brought the harp to lean against my shoulder. Starting at the narrow angle of the treble end, I touched what strings remained, down to the pillar which seemed a mile away. I would have gone on caressing it indefinitely if the proprietor had not shouted at me to stop that racket.

Readers of the Prydain books know that harp. It’s Fflewddur Fflam’s, and discovering it on the pages of My Love Affair with Music is this book’s most accidentally poignant note.

I don’t know why a major publisher let a mostly unknown author collect his anecdotes into an entire book about amateur musicianship, but the result is not only charming but also perceptive, especially Alexander’s continual rediscovery of music—and his adult realization that his record collection is filled with “things I had heard before and never really listened to.” Literally grappling with the fiddle, he concludes that for an adult listener, music shouldn’t be “something to dream over,” but a physical, human phenomenon. “The harp, that lovely and innocent-looking instrument, could bite a harpist’s fingers until they bled,” he concedes. “The result was music—not ethereal, unworldly, although it might well sound like it—but very much in the world of flesh and blood.” My Love Affair with Music makes a childhood icon seem equally real: a man of bemusement, frustration, and thoughtful regret.

“And after a while, you can work on points for style…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

In 1963, seven years after writing a memoir about his cats and one year after publishing a book about New York’s first cats-only veterinarian, Lloyd Alexander must have foreseen a future in animal-themed nonfiction. With seven prior books to his name, none of them a blockbuster, he had, I suspect, warmed editors’ hearts as much with his love of animals as with his professionalism—which made him a suitable spokesman when the ASPCA came calling.

Apparently written to promote the ASPCA during a period of rejuvenation and expansion, Fifty Years in the Doghouse offers a brief history of the organization and the animal-welfare movement, but the real hero here is William Michael Ryan, a uniformed ASPCA special agent. Born in New York City in 1893 to a family of horse breeders, Ryan spent more than 50 years protecting animals and rescuing them from abuse, staring down gangsters and thugs while dealing with the banal cruelty of everyday people. Ryan comes across as a tough city kid, but his commitment to animals, even when the rescuee is a toad, suggests a superheroic sense of mission. “Humane work makes demands on the heart as well as on the head,” Alexander admits. “The number of people able to meet those demands is limited.”

Alexander’s publisher treats Fifty Years in the Doghouse as more than a copywriting assignment, letting the author use his familiar, gentle voice to tell Bill Ryan’s story—and letting him indulge his harmless obsession with cats. The resulting encomium is wildly unnecessary, but characteristically nice:

Economic and logistic considerations aside, it would be pleasant to believe that another factor operates in the growth of the cat’s popularity: that more people are starting to like cats purely because of the cat’s own remarkable qualities of affection combined with independence, gracefulness, intelligence—and the ability generally to stay one up on the human he deigns to live with. People with touchy egos can be driven to despair by a cat’s insistence on occasional periods of privacy and time for contemplation and meditation. The owner who prefers wildly enthusiastic tail-wagging to subtler and perhaps more intense demonstrations of love may develop the nagging impression that his cat doesn’t have a very high opinion of him.

But these are childish reactions. It may be that we are starting to enjoy cats more because we are growing a little more mature, a little wiser. In any case, cats have patience enough to wait for us to catch up to them.

Fortunately, Fifty Years in the Doghouse isn’t just another Lloyd Alexander cat book. Most of the time, the author steps aside, and Bill Ryan’s adventures speak for themselves. In short order, Ryan confronts a horse stuck under the front steps of a brownstone, a grizzly bear in Brooklyn, a Russian trade delegation’s pet wolves in a Midtown hotel, and a bull in the Madison Square Garden ladies’ room. As it turns out, Bill Ryan invented the standard cat-rescue grappling device and a sling to lift horses, and in 1963, few uniformed officers in New York could rival his barstool yarns:

When he reached the boardinghouse, Ryan saw that the policeman had not been accurate. The monkey was not a monkey, but a red ape. He was not the size of an airedale; he was much bigger. He was also in a foul temper. He squawked, huffed, grunted, bared his teeth, and Ryan could easily understand why the landlady had considered herself insulted.

“Well,” Ryan mused, “he is a big one, isn’t he?”

“Just put on a pair of gloves,” one of the officers advised, “and put him in the cage.”

Among the amusing stories of human inattention, Alexander relates examples of blatant cruelty, such as crippled ducklings, starved cows, and burned rodeo horses, pointedly, but without gratuitous detail. “Only a psychiatrist could unravel the motives of a 200-pound giant of a man who calmly beat a kitten to death with a rake,” he offers. “Or another man who stabbed his own wire-haired terrier with a pocket knife and left her to die in a trash can.” Although pathological cruelty is, he says, infrequent, “[o]f all the strange byways the Society has followed in its efforts to protect animals, the strangest has been the human mind itself.”

This realization leads to some of the better stories in Fifty Years in the Doghouse, such as the case of the fall-down drunk who denies owning a dog:

The man walked briskly to the desk. “I believe you people have my dog here.”

“What!” Ryan exploded. “At three o’clock this morning you didn’t have a dog. You didn’t even have a puppy.”

“My dog is here,” the man said firmly. “I want him back.”

“Mister,” Ryan said, “you can have any dog you want. Just tell me one thing. Why didn’t you make up your mind before? You knew damned well it wss your dog; and I knew damned well it was your dog. Why didn’t you save yourself a lot of time and trouble?”

The man drew closer to Ryan and lowered his voice. “That dog’s the best friend I got in the world. He’d give up his life for me if he had to. And I guess I’d do the same for him. But there’s something else,” he added sheepishly. “I go off the reservation sometimes. Once in a while maybe I drink too much. You got to understand this. I respect that dog and I don’t want nobody thinking he runs in bad company. So what else am I gonna do? What kind of a reputation would a dog get, hanging around an old drunk? Sure I let on he wasn’t mine. I didn’t want to embarrass him.”

Perhaps that’s the sort of kindly, aw-shucks anecdote most of us expect from Lloyd Alexander, but he knows to give the darker stories minimal adornment:

For many of the city’s anonymous millions, New York can be a lonely, unhappy town and their animals suffer in consequence.

Dear Doggie, a woman wrote to her pet chow, for three days I have waited for some kind of word from you . . .

Too emotionally disturbed to realize that animals can’t read, the woman finished her note, propped it on a table and swallowed a massive dose of sleeping pills.

A rescue squad found her barely alive and rushed her to the hospital. The dog waited patiently at the Society’s shelter throughout its owner’s long and difficult period of therapy. In time, she returned to claim her pet. She had learned something easy to overlook: that an animal’s love, like a human’s, no matter how strong it may be in reality, truly exists only when we recognize it.

Now forgotten, Fifty Years in the Doghouse got a fair amount of press in 1964. Half a century later, the book’s litany of animal anecdotes—monkeys in Manhattan! lions in the theater district!—becomes a blur, but poignant stories about forlorn pet owners, and the sort of daily heroism Michael Ryan embodied, make the book memorable, thanks to an author who puts animal-rescue tales into perspective.

“Ryan does what most humans would do—if we knew how,” Alexander concludes with a strange optimism, before clarifying: “And, also, if we were willing to take the time, to go a little out of our way.” One year away from publishing The Book of Three, Alexander turns a book about pets into a book about people, fostering a notion that would run through his writing for decades: the promise of human decency.

“A place where nobody dared to go…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

In 2005, fifteen years after penning the fifth Vesper Holly book, Lloyd Alexander concluded the series with The Xanadu Adventure. Vesper’s first-generation fans were grown by then, many with kids of their own, but Alexander gave them a book that respects their maturity—a book that, like the 2002 novel The Rope Trick, is friendly to children but feels written for wistful adults.

Although fifteen years passed in the real world, Alexander starts The Xanadu Adventure just months after The Philadelphia Adventure. It’s still 1876, and our narrator, Professor Brinton Garrett, remains vexed by a cloying houseguest, the rambunctious young scholar he nicknames “The Weed.” Readers of the Vesper Holly books long ago learned not to trust their well-meaning but stuffy narrator, but Alexander implies far more than familiar humor when “Brinnie” fails to apprehend the way 20-year-old Vesper beams at the boy.

At first, no crisis drives The Xanadu Adventure. The whole gang—Vesper, The Weed, Brinton Garrett, and the professor’s wife, Mary—sail to the Mediterranean to indulge their various interests: Minoan inscriptions, Etruscan history, sightseeing in Turkey and Greece. Unsurprisingly, the Rasputin of this series, Dr. Desmond Helvetius, resurfaces, undiminished in his ruthlessness. As one of Vesper’s new friends, a Romanian archaeologist, exclaims: “He assaulted me! With a violence I thought existed only in the realms of higher education.”

Although Helvetius isn’t a substantive character even after six books, his schemes grow ever funnier. From his newly constructed Xanadu in Asia Minor, he plots to usurp the Ottoman Empire and monopolize the world petroleum supply to build a terrible new explosive, the humbly named “Helvolene.” He’s also keen to discredit Heinrich Schliemann‘s claim to unearthing “Troy”—and, in his most dastardly plan of all, he intends to sit down and compose a proper ending to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” (“I could not allow this to pass unchallenged,” insists Brinnie Garrett, outraged.)

Throughout The Xanadu Adventure, Alexander foregrounds this sort of eye-twinkling wit. As our heroes escape Xanadu through an air duct, Brinnie and Vesper share what could be their final moments. Their exchange is the banter of dear friends:

“Dear girl,” I said, as Vesper prepared for her turn, “should aught go amiss, if we are doomed to fail, one day we all shall meet in a brighter, happier place.”

“Philadelphia?” she said.

Alexander wrote only one more novel after The Xanadu Adventure, and this final Vesper Holly book, with its wistful dedication—”for adventurers, home at last”—is steeped with a pensive sense of endings. Without spoiling the book, I’ll say only that at 81, Alexander lends a very convincing voice to an aging narrator who helplessly watches his beloved ward become an adult and move on with her life.

The Xanadu Adventure abounds with references to classical literature and Shakespeare that promise a celebratory, comic ending, but misleadingly; this is still, in part, a novel about aging by an old man who survived war and mourned the loss of loved ones. One Amazon reviewer gripes that at the end of this book, Vesper Holly’s life suddenly moves at breakneck speed, without discussion or reflection, but perhaps that’s how the world seemed to an elderly Lloyd Alexander. I suspect he came back to the Vesper Holly series not only to conclude it, but also to point out that genuine endings are bittersweet in ways that children may yet comprehend.

“…’til the whippoorwill of freedom zapped me right between the eyes…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

From 1986 to 1990, Lloyd Alexander published five Vesper Holly novels. While he clearly loved writing these slender adventures about an absurdly brilliant teenage polymath from 1870s Philadelphia, the third and fourth books fell back too easily on the formula established in the first, with an infallible heroine battling her nemesis in a world without any true danger. Fortunately, in the fifth book, The Philadelphia Adventure, Alexander tweaks the premise: Instead of sending Vesper and her guardian abroad to unravel the plots of the evil Dr. Helvetius, he sees fit to lure the villain to Vesper’s—and his own—hometown. 

“For these past few years, Miss Vesper Holly has adventured in imaginary places that seem real,” Alexander writes in an author’s note. “Now she adventures in a real place that seems imaginary, even fantastic.” With its cutthroat sailors, irritable Quakers, and disgruntled Civil War vets, Philadelphia is a worthy setting for a Vesper Holly adventure, even if Alexander embellishes his beloved city. Recalling his childhood perceptions of the Philadelphia suburbs, he turns Aronimink into an impenetrable wilderness, Kellytown into a pirate haven, and his own Drexel Hill into a jungle:

[By] late afternoon, we plunged into the harsh embrace of the Drexel Hills.

Our majestic Alleghenies may surpass the Drexel Hills in altitude, but not in spitefulness. For that, they can only be compared to the ghastly Haggar Mountains of Jedera. Most of the Haggar is bleakly devoid of life. In the Drexel Hills, there is entirely too much of it, mainly in the form of malicious biting and stinging insects, including an especially savage wood louse, unique to the area, almost as big as my thumbnail. Even the bramble bushes and wild barberry seemed possessed of malevolent lives of their own, plucking at us with their sharp talons. We were in constant danger of twisting our ankles on stones thrusting up like dragon’s teeth. Garter snakes the size of young anacondas slithered across our path…

Alexander’s Philadelphian grotesque, while funny, also strikes a necessary note of tension. When Vesper Holly and Dr. Helvetius finally come to blows, their fistfight on the banks of the Schuylkill recalls Moriarity and Sherlock Holmes—and the adult reader begins to wonder if death, in one of its innumerable forms, looms over this series at last.

Naturally, The Philadelphia Adventure has a wild Vesper Holly plot: President Ulysses S. Grant and Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil implore Vesper to ransom two royal Brazilian toddlers while saving the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition from the sabotage of Dr. Helvetius, who plans to use George Henry Corliss’s steam engine to blow up Grant, his Cabinet, and the Brazilian imperial family so he can install a puppet leader in America and raise a Brazilian-American empire from the chaos. All of this unfolds as a Vesper Holly book must, with demonstrations of language skills, displays of expert horsemanship, affirmation of scientific wisdom, and the musings of an affably fallible narrator, Dr. Brinnie Garrett, who seems surprised when decency wins in the end.

Of course, how a Vesper Holly book ends is less important than the gentle didacticism that drives each adventure to its closing page. The Philadelphia Adventure offers a quick snapshot of the troubled Grant Administration; it brings readers to the 1876 Expo; it shows Brinnie Garrett taking pride in the Etruscan history he never quite finishes, and a scholar nicknamed “The Weed” exploring yoga and Minoan inscriptions; and it introduces readers to Browning’s “How They Brought the Good News From Ghent to Aix,” Whittier’s “Centennial Hymn” (which Brinnie mishears as “bloodcurdling shrieks and dreadful wailing”), and Wagner’s “Grand Centennial March.” Meanwhile, Vesper’s carriage horses are named Horsa and Hengist. At one point, Max Schmidt rows by, straight out of Eakins.

I could gripe that after five books, the Vesper Holly cast, never very substantive, still seems slight, but The Philadelphia Adventure is a lively read, all the more so because it reinvigorates the series; without scolding us to eat our peas, Alexander makes clear that science, literature, history, and music can be sources of pleasure and joy. The romp wrapped around that message lets young readers know that success begins with cultural and scientific knowledge properly applied and buttressed by human decency—a formula Alexander might properly credit to brotherly love.