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A Wonder Book

Text by: E. David Knox

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls" is a quaint retelling of several classical myths, such as The Gorgon's Head, The Golden Touch, The Paradise Children and the Three Golden Apples, by one of America's most celebrated authors. The myths themselves are framed by a quaint narrative about a college student and his younger companions enjoying the many natural wonders of childhood in New England around the year 1850.

It is exactly all this quaintness that will be the greatest challenge for modern readers. The very concept of a young man of eighteen spending time with a group of precocious children ranging in age from thirteen to under six for the enjoyment of telling them stories is very odd to the Twenty-first Century reader. And the names given to this storyteller and his young auditors (Eustace Bright, Cowslip, Periwinkle, etc.) are entirely too precious for a modern aesthetic.

But that weakness, if it is one, is a product of the passage of time, and not the result of poor storytelling or craftsmanship. "A Wonder Book" is elegantly written and generally very accessible. There are a few words and phrases that have fallen out of use and may be unfamiliar to modern readers, but none that present any real difficulty. The imagery is very pastoral, but it is artful and expresses the author's love for the beauty of his New England. The scenes of New England described in A Wonder Book are an earthly paradise that rivals the mythical gardens and fountains described in the stories they frame.

Like any other collection of fairy tales, "A Wonder Book" has a point. That point is to teach values and virtues to children. Aside from being a charming collection of well-told children's stories, "A Wonder Book" is a snapshot of American values, more specifically, the values of educated New Englanders of the 1850s. It is interesting for the Twenty-first Century reader to compare the values espoused in "A Wonder Book" to those held dear by modern Americans.

"A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls" is a beautiful little collection of stories that can provide light entertainment for children and rich rewards for a reader who wishes to delve deeply into it. It contains beautiful stories about ancient heroes and monsters. It contains loving descriptions of a lush landscape and the ideals of a young nation. It also contains some of Hawthorne's thoughts on the interplay between classical myths and the new stories being created by his contemporaries, like Herman Melville. It is one golden age looking back at another. It is very much worth a read.

* All Photographs courtesy of The Library of Congress.