Sunday, July 01, 2018

A Kindness Remembered... Or, The Widow's Broom by Chris Van Allsburg

Witches' brooms don't last forever. Even the best of them lose the power of flight.

... which is just what happened one cold autumn night many years ago.

Out of a moonlit sky a dark, cloaked figure came spinning to the ground. The witch, along with her tired broom, landed beside a small white farmhouse, the home of a lonely widow named Minna Shaw.

When at dawn the kindhearted Minna discovers the injured stranger in her garden, she helps her inside to a bed, where the witch quickly falls into a deep sleep. The next morning Minna is not really surprised to find the witch gone, with only her left-behind broom as evidence that she was ever there.

Minna suspects that the broom is now a broom like any other and puts it with her own broom in a closet in the kitchen. But one morning when she awakes, she hears the distinct sound of a broom. It was the witch's broom, sweeping her kitchen floor . . .

... all by itself.

Minna is a bit uneasy, but she needs the help, and soon she learns that the broom can learn to do other chores, carrying water, feeding chickens, cutting wood for the fireplace and stove, and fetching the cow from the pasture at night. The broom even learns to play simple tunes on the piano...

... one note at a time.

But in the spirit of no good deed goes unpunished, soon the neighbor's rowdy boys, the Spiveys, spot the broom passing time sweeping the pebbles from the path. They pester it, hit it with sticks, and set their dog on it, until the broom turns to them and matter-of-factly tosses their little dog over the trees. Soon Mr. Spivey and some other men pay Minna Shaw a visit. Politely she shows her suspicious guests all the good things the broom can do to help her around the house, but they don't see it that way.

"This is a wicked, wicked thing," Mr. Spivey said.

And soon the Spiveys and neighbors from far and wide return with a stake and coils of rope and demand the broom. Minna meekly points to the broom closet.

"It sleeps here."

Gingerly, the men carry the broom outside and tie it to the stake. Then they set it afire and burn it to the ground.

Minna is sad at the seeming loss of her kind and helpful companion. But she is not without her own means of recourse.

The Spivey's dog comes home, unharmed but hungry, and things go back to normal--that is, until Minna pays her neighbors a visit to tell them of something she has seen at night. . .

... The ghost of the broom, white as snow, moves through the woods, carrying an axe.

And when Mr. Spivey spies the ghostly broom himself, circling his house, and rapping at his door, the whole family quickly packs up their wagon and leaves, lock, stock, and barrel. And that night, all is peaceful in Minna Shaw's little white house, as she listens to a simple tune on her piano, played, of course, one note at a time....

She smiled at the broom, not a ghost at all, but still covered with the coat of white paint she had given it. "You play so nicely," said Minna Shaw.

In this new edition, Chris Van Allsburg's The Widow's Broom (25th Anniversary Edition) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) reveals why its author is still the master of storytelling mystery, with the craft and power to lift the veil between the mundane and the mystical, while spinning a spellbinding yarn that will have young readers chuckling as they recollect the carefully-crafted clues to the story's surprise conclusion.

Awarded the Caldecott Medal for his classic Polar Express (30th anniversary edition) and Jumanji (30th Anniversary Edition), both made into movies, Van Allsburg also has written a companion piece to this book, The Stranger, in which again a strange autumn visitor, named Jack and needing help, turns out to be not just what he seems. Van Allsburg's storytelling has a magic of its own, amplified by his exquisite draftsmanship and powerful use of color and atmosphere to build a special enchantment for young readers. As School Library Journal said, "Although not strictly for Halloween, [this one] may turn out to be as much a part of that holiday as Polar Express is of Christmas."

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