“You never know what you will find when you climb a mountain…”
While he was a student at Berkeley in the 1940s, Edward Ormondroyd had a vision of a “large pompous bird diving out of a window, tripping on the sill, and crashing into a rose arbor below” (from the author’s letter in the Purple House Press edition). Ormondroyd admits to being mystified as to how this became a phoenix and a boy’s bedroom window, but he knew that he had a kernel of a story worth telling. About a decade later, the story was developed, David and the Phoenix was published, the book met with relative success.
“But the most astonishing thing was that the bird had an open book on the ground and was apparently trying to learn part of it by heart.”
While the language and expressions are distinctly American, this book reminds me of something out of Edith Nesbit. David and his family have just moved into a new home. After helping the family move boxes and furniture, David gets permission to go explore the nearby mountain. On his first hike, David discovers a nearly 500 year old phoenix who is teaching himself Latin. Strikingly similar to Nesbit’s Five Children and It, an ordinary boy on a walk (or hike) discovers a smart-mouthed, ancient, and mythical creature. Also a bit like Nesbit, the creature works a kind of magic that puts David in touch with all kinds of other fantastic experiences.
“My acquaintances (to mention but a few) include Fauns, Dragons, Unicorns, Trolls, Gryffins, Gryffons, Gryffens…”
Together, David and Phoenix go on four exciting and dangerous adventures while meeting a wild cast of characters. At first, the adventures are just for fun, or for David’s “education,” as the Phoenix would call it. As the story develops, however, David and the Phoenix become increasingly aware of a threat posed by an unscrupulous scientist who wants to kill the Phoenix for research purposes. The later adventures support their efforts to acquire the requisite ingredients needed to foil the scientist’s plans.
“I have been thinking. Yesterday you showed an intelligent interest in my problems and asked intelligent questions. You did not scoff, as others might have done. You have very rare qualities.”
One of the charms of this story is that Phoenix treats David with a kind of respect that inspires David to develop the more noble aspects of his character. “The bird had taken time to talk to him and explain things to him as though he were an equal. And although he did not understand many of the long words it used, [David] felt pleased at being spoken to as though he did understand.” The mutual respect shown between the two friends makes the story endearing and sweet.
While the story is relatively modern, including things like electric poles and a scientist with scientific instruments, the inclusion of banshees, leprechauns, sea monsters, and pirate gold gives it a distinctly fairytale feel. Sensitive readers will want to know, however, that this is flavored more like Brothers Grimm than some more gentle retellings. The pirate song includes a line about slitting a throat, the banshee promises to impose curses and spells that will make victims wish they were dead, and the fauns possess a magic that lulls children to their demise. Also, sensitive readers will want to know, before they are confronted with the last chapter of this modern fairytale, what happens to Phoenixes that makes them so famous.
One quibble or caution. David lies and sneaks around all throughout the story. “Well, he would have to tell a lie. After all, it was for the Phoenix’s sake.” I was hoping this would resolve itself in a positive way, but it doesn’t. David is routinely sneaking out after dark to meet the Phoenix. When David and the Phoenix knock the power out for the entire neighborhood, David sneaks into his house and pretends to be as surprised as his family is. I wasn’t impressed with the dishonesty and wished the author had found a creative way to include the adults as some of David’s allies.
Despite my disappointment at the inclusion of unwitting parents and a secretive protagonist, I think that this story has some value for middle readers. The story is creative, the writing is high quality, the adventure is somewhat predictable but still exciting, and the inclusion of so many mythical creatures is enriching. This would make an excellent book for a newly independent reader who needs something accessible but exciting. Like I did with Shiloh, I highlighted areas I wanted my son to notice and plan on discussing them with him when he is done reading.