No Flying in the House by Betty Brock

14 Nov

Ok.  Here’s a quote that I really believe in, taken completely out of context.  “I think sometimes people get enamored of technology and they take people out of the mixture because its easier.”  Dave Carney.  He was talking about Romney’s campaign and was among the dozens of post-mortems on the whole Romney campaign.  I am talking about how any big organization almost always focuses on technology rather than people, in fact use technology to try to organize people and inevitably fail.

And then there’s the Petraus thing, which I’m not even going to bother going into.

Instead I’m reviewing No Flying in the House a book that will charm the pants off of you.  Yes it’s a kid’s book.  Get over it.

To start with, I really like Harry Potter, but I think it kind of spoiled a certain element of fantasy–it’s all so large and sprawling, you can’t have just one ghost but a whole flock of them and characters use magic even when simple every day ways of doing things would be easier and probably more efficient.  In fact there’s magic overflowing to the point that the little moments stop being magical.  I fear No Flying in the House will disappoint a Harry Potter fan, because in this book this girl can fly.  That’s it.  There’s a couple of other magical items (her tiny dog and a little cat that can talk) but that’s it.  If Harry Potter was a chocolate chunk cookie with sprinkles, No Flying in the House is one of those little powdered tea biscuits.  Now which one are kids going to run to every time?

To get past a couple of obvious things, first this is definitely one of those books that has huge letters, and is set into chapters so a kid can say he’s reading a chapter book.  Second, I have the old scholastic version, and the cover is just dreadful–it has this girl with eighties hair looking like she has bad gas over a teapot.  Fortunately the pictures on the inside are from the older original, and are more classic pen and ink drawings where the eighties haven’t happened yet.

Basically it’s the story of rich Mrs. Vancourt, who collects little clockwork animals, and how a little girl just shows up with this tiny dog that can talk.  The girl is Annabel and the dog is Gloria.  Mrs. Vancourt really doesn’t care for the girl, but she wants the dog–and as the dog makes it clear that they’re a package deal, Mrs. Vancourt takes them both in.  The dog entertains Mrs. Vancourt’s friends by pretending to be a clockwork animal and doing all these tricks, and otherwise plays mother to Annabel.  Nobody knows where Annabel really came from or why.  One night, Annabel looks at Mrs. Vancourt’s animal collection (which she is NOT supposed to touch) and pulls out her favorite, a mechanical swan, and plays with it.  Of course it breaks.  Except a mechanical cat comes alive and promises to fix it, if she never tells a single soul what happened.  Annabel agrees, and Belinda (the cat) fixes it.  She turns back to a machine reminding her to remember.

Many years later Annabel is a bit older, and is noticing odd things about herself.  She can kiss her elbow.  She can’t answer any questions about her parents or even remember them.  In several scenes she encounters Belinda the cat telling her how people are stupid and there’s so much better than that out there.  Finally Belinda teaches her how to fly.  Annabel starts swooping all over the house causing everybody to be upset (and of course Belinda disappeared by then, after warning her to never tell.)  Mrs. Vancourt is quite upset.  Gloria (the dog) is sad.  That night Gloria wanders off and turns into a clockwork animal, never changing back.

In the meantime we find out that Mrs. Vancourt had a son once, who broke one of her animals (guess which one?  A cat with emerald eyes!) , and ran away in disgrace never to be seen again.  They can’t even discuss him.

In the end Annabel has the choice to be fairy and have powers or to be human and have a family.  She chooses to be human.  Immediately her parents return, and her father turns out to be Mrs. Vancourt’s son!  Surprise, surprise!

Ok, ignore the cheesy happy ending (though could it be anything else?) the book is just delightful.  One reason is because the plot moves very slowly for a book like this, changes of seasons and several years pass, the movie pauses to describe the shelves of mechanical animals in the moonlight, and of Belinda,  the mechanical cat with emeralds for eyes and no heart.  Also, Mrs. Vancourt slowly thaws as the book goes on, from a woman who wants nothing to do with children, who replaced people with her little clockwork animals for her affections, and finally grew to care for a human again.  And the thing I can’t all the way explain is the delicate tone of the book, of a girl who must be protected, of time passing, and getting stuck.

Oh and just as the animals are sometimes real and sometimes cold and emotionless, so are the people.

And the story is just so elegant (ending left aside), so well constructed, it really is like one of those little clockwork animals with the jeweled eyes.

Read this, with cocoa, near a fireplace if you’ve got one.  You’re in for a lovely night.

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