The Dulcimer Boy by Tor Seidler, Brian Selznick

I picked up the Dulcimer Boy at a local library sale. Nicely packaged and illustrated children’s hardback for two bucks? Yeah, hard for me to pass that up.

It turned out to be a rather simple folktale. I enjoyed it, and read it in one sitting, but I can see how the simplicity and the familiar story line might undermine some reader’s enjoyment.

Here is the School Library Journal:

First published in 1979 (Viking; o.p.) for adults, Seidler’s early-20th-century New England fairy tale receives an inspired pictorial resurrection by Selznick. Tracing the footsteps of musically gifted William Carbuncle from his arrival on his uncaring uncle’s doorstep in a box containing him, his brother, and a silver-stringed dulcimer, the story follows William’s escape and journey south. Tricked by an innkeeper into a year’s servitude, he spends his days plotting his brother’s rescue and his nights playing sorrowful love songs of the sea to drunken sailor crowds. Liberation soon appears in the guise of a fictional New York City mayor, and William finally frees his brother from servitude and gains his own independence. Though Dulcimer Boy is without traditional fairy-tale elements, magic instead is portrayed as artistic accomplishment, inspiration, and drive. And, Seidler’s simple yet eloquent prose likens William’s plight to a caged songbird, cleverly weaving the hero’s physical dilemma and pursuit of artistic creativity into the novel’s rising tension. Selznick’s detailed sense of light and shadow shines as his soft-textured acrylic paintings not only echo the novel’s overall poetic melancholy, but also serve as integral pieces of the plot itself. This fusion of fantastic storytelling and engaging illustrations makes Dulcimer Boy an exciting and inspirational work that will be read, both alone and aloud, and remembered.

I think this sentence of the above review captures what I enjoyed about the story and why others may not react the same way: “Selznick’s detailed sense of light and shadow shines as his soft-textured acrylic paintings not only echo the novel’s overall poetic melancholy, but also serve as integral pieces of the plot itself.”

That combination of prose and illustration creating poetic melancholy appeals to me. Is it a well worn plot device? Sure, is it a gritty, realistic and tension filled story line? Of course not, this isn’t a thriller after all. It is a simple story but the “simple yet eloquent prose” combined with the engaging illustrations makes for a good story.

But to highlight the opposite reaction (and for entertainment value) allow me to quote from a review:

Can’t add to the breathless reviews here. Even in 1979 wasn’t the tale of the put-upon orphan old? The harridan who cleans too much? The snide, hypocritical “adoptive” uncle? ,

The characters do not ring true. I can find no reason for the brother to abandon the other, and (as in so many orphan books) can see no reason they turn out to be nice people when raised by cliches of nastiness.

If you like Tale of Despereaux, another tale wherein mindless, contrived suffering is romanticized, you’ll love this.

As they say on the interwebs, heh.  I think where this goes wrong to a certain extent is the expectation of something new and unconventional in a folktale. The point is to use convention in this sort of story.

But I don’t think that is fair either because there are some unconvetional aspects. For example when [spoiler alert] when William meets his father it doesn’t result in a happily ever after end but a return to the dreaded Carbuncles. And the same is true when the Mayor rescues him; sure he goes back for his father but what happens is left unsaid. Again, the melancholy lingers and gives the story added poignancy.

So as is so often the case, your mileage is likely to vary greatly depending on your expectations. Coming to this story with no expectations I enjoyed its simplicity and elegance.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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