Thursday, 25 September 2008

Aunt Effie and Mrs Grizzle, Old Drumble, by Jack Lasenby

Aunt Effie and Mrs Grizzle Jack Lasenby, 2008, Longacre, 208 pages, paperback, NZ$17.99. ISBN 978-1-877460-07-4

Old Drumble Jack Lasenby, HarperCollins, 2008, 224 pages, paperback, NZ$16.99.
ISBN 978-1-86950-674-2

Jack Lasenby is a national treasure. He may be our only surviving yarnster. Consider this chapter heading from Aunt Effie and Mrs Grizzle: “Global Warming and the Great Waharoa Swamp, Crocodiles and Monster Pukekos, the Prime Minister and the School Inspector, and why Aunt Effie Kept Her Eyes Skinned.”

The indomitable Aunt Effie has already shed three husbands, rewritten New Zealand history and furthered the education of her 26 nieces and nephews in the three previous books of her unlikely adventures. Now with 99 chests of treasure under her bed, she feels free to relate the remarkable story of her childhood. Since Effie claims to have started milking cows when she was so small she had to stand on a box to reach the teats, it is important to remember that Jack Lasenby is not a dreadful liar; he’s a very good one indeed.

Aunt Effie and Mrs Grizzle is ideal for reading aloud to groups as long as the adult doing the reading doesn’t get the giggles over the traps the cunning old writer has set, like the mysterious darkness under Aunt Effie’s bed ‘which stirred, got to its feet like a rough beast, and slouched towards us.’ Even Yeats would have laughed.

Daisy doesn’t write the glossary this time; her 25 cousins do. This means that some of their entries may not be entirely reliable. (Women’s Institute: A weekly meeting of witches in the Hopuruahine Hall.) Others, however, seem just right. (Wind in the Willows: Another splendid book. If your teacher hasn’t read it to you, then ask her, then remind her, then whinge and complain, and moan, and say it’s not fair – until she does.)
The suitably sinister cover picture of a packhorse being carried aloft in the talons of a giant pukeko is by David Elliott.

Old Drumble is also by Jack Lasenby and, while it too is full of fun, it also has a slightly more serious approach to life. Young Jack Jackman lives on the stock route through Waharoa in the 1930s and is fascinated by old Andy the drover who brings sheep and cattle through the tiny township. “Andy had a white scar on one arm where a scared horse had bitten him…One of his fingers was bent where he had cut a tendon while dog-tuckering a sheep. His face and hands and arms and legs were a tangle of lines, grooves and scars, each with its story.” The best of these stories concern Andy’s lead dog, Old Drumble. Andy’s yarns create a world where Old Drumble climbs trees, goes on pub-crawls, rides the winner at the Te Aroha Races and fishes for trout. “Of course, he’s not a dry fly man, Old Drumble,” says Andy.

Young Jack dreams of becoming a drover and nodding to people while screwing up the corner of his mouth and making a clicking noise at the same time. “But his wink went wrong, both eyes closed and he didn’t get a click.” By the end of the story, aware of the hardships of the road, Jack has had to face up to tragedy but his life has also been enriched by knowing Andy and Old Drumble. As has the reader’s life.

Trevor Agnew

This review first appeared in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on 6 September 2008.

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