Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Pippi Returns! When Mischief Came to Town by Katrina Nannestad

Here I am, feeling sorry for myself.

I'm sitting on a wooden crate, wedged between a cage of geese and a goat. If I press too hard against the geese, they honk and peck at me, which makes me want to cry. If I press to hard against the goat, she eats my plaits. One is already two centimeters shorter than the other, and that makes me want to cry.

"I will be a brave girl," I whisper. "I will make Mama proud of me."

Ten-year-old Inge Maria Jensen has just seen her mother buried. With no father or family in Copenhagen, she finds herself shipped off to a grandmother she has never known, to Bornholm, a windy, gray island where her Grandmother greets her goat-gnawed hair with a critical eye. No hugs or smiles are offered, and when Inge Maria points to a snowflake, surprisingly drifting through the doorway into Grandmother's cottage, she gets a hard slap across the hand.

Inge's life with Mama in Copenhagen was filled with lights and music and games and love, but her mother's mother seems to have taken a dislike to her instantly. But Grandmother's soup is delicious, although Inge is still hungry when the bowl is empty. Then Grandmother puts out bread and butter and jam. Is she allowed to take some? Or will she earn another slap? At last, her hunger overcomes her fear and she begins to eat the bread.

By the time she sits down with a cup of tea and a glass of milk for me, I have gobbled all three pieces of bread. "Thank you, Grandmother." I say.

"Good girl!" she says. "I never could abide a fussy eater."

Things look better the next day when Grandmother quickly knits Inge Maria a bright red wool cap with an enormous pom-pom on top to make up for her missing braid and introduces her to the animals in the barn--the honey-colored milk cows Blossom and Hilda, Levi the donkey, Plenty the pig, and especially an enormous tom turkey named Henry with a talent for clowning. Grandmother's oatmeal and hot cocoa have generous splashes of cream, she doesn't object to Inge's one-eared stuffed rabbit, and she seems to enjoy her reading aloud from her book of Andersen's Fairy Tales. She takes her to visit her old friends Angelina Nordstrup and the Pedersen twins, whose conversations are very boring but whose baked goods are delicious and who interestingly call Grandmother "Dizzy." Grandmother won't say why.

At first school is disappointing. There are no funny songs to sing, and they all have to draw the same thing at the same time and with the same four colors. And worst of all, at recess girls are made to sit quietly on a bench while the boys get to run and play games on the grassy field.

But little by little, Inge Maria introduces new songs to her class, even making up new ones, and persuades the schoolmaster to let girls run and play as they do in Copenhagen. She coaxes laughs and the telling of old girlhood stories out of Grandmother's old friends and learns that she was nicknamed "Dizzy" because she loved to dance and sing and play crazy pranks when she was a girl, just like Inge. Her stodgy Grandmother, also lost in grief for her own daughter, becomes warm and affectionate, and laughter comes often to their cozy cottage when Inge Maria brings home a gray kitten Grandmother names Fleabag. And so it seems that smiles come to perhaps to the whole stolid citizenry of Bornholm. And at last Inge is able to weep for the loss of her mother, a loss she now knows Grandmother shares.

Grandmother hugs me close. "It is hard when people go away." she says softly.

I sob, and Grandmother whispers, "It's okay to be sad because it means that we are blessed. Blessed to have loved someone so much and to have had them as part of our lives."

Katrina Nannestad's just published When Mischief Came to Town (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), set in 1911, is an old fashioned story of the best sort, with a high-spirited and adventurous heroine reminiscent of Carol Ryrie Brink's Caddie Woodlawn and Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking (Puffin Modern Classics), one who takes on life with open arms and open heart. Nannestad's new middle grade novel has received high praise and starred reviews all around, recommended as a first purchase for all children's libraries. (It's going straight to my nine-year-old granddaughter right away.)

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