A while ago now, I was driving home when I noticed an elderly man leaning against a sign post, not too far from my house. He looked a little confused, and so I went to see what was going on. It turned out that he had gone for a walk, he wasn’t quite sure when and he wasn’t quite sure where to. He knew his wife would be missing him, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember his address. I took him in, gave him a cup of tea and searched the phone book. There was no phone number listed under his name so I ended up having to ring the police. They found that he had gone missing from a local rest home. His wife had died the year before. The police asked if I would mind having him there until someone from the rest home came to pick him up. We had a delightful conversation, especially when he saw my husband’s collection of very old matchbox cars. He told me about how he used to race motorbikes on the same beach as Burt Munro, of the World’s Fastest Indian, in Invercargill. He told me about how as kids, they would go and watch him but he was a ‘grumpy old buggar’ so they never really got to talk to him. Eventually, someone from the rest home arrived. The gentleman graciously thanked me for his ‘cuppa’, and left as though he was about to step into a limousine, until the care worker started to growl at him for escaping – telling him what a naughty boy he was, and he wasn’t to do it again. I could have cried, as what had been a beautiful smile turned into confusion, concern and then sadness. Heart breaking. My son asked why she bothered growling…it seemed obvious to us that he wasn’t going to remember. Why couldn’t he have just had a lovely afternoon out? My son later asked if I thought he really had been on the beach with Burt Monro? Who knows…
The ACB with Honora Lee is a beautifully told tale of Perry, a somewhat unconventional 9 year old girl, with an ‘eccentric sense of rhythm’ according to her Music and Movement tutor. She attends the Ernle Clark School because, ‘her parents said that was the best place for someone like her.’
What was someone like her like? Perry often wondered. But she said, ‘Why? Why? Why? Why is it the best school?’
‘Because,’ said her mother. ‘Be…Cos…’ She was driving the car, she couldn’t think at the same time. She had to wait for the lights to turn red. ‘Because it asks a lot of you.’
Actually, at school, it was Perry who asked a lot, though some of the teachers wished she would not. The Special Assistance teacher, Mrs Sonne, said it would be much better for everyone if Perry tried to listen.
Perry’s mother also believes that children should be kept busy, so there are daily after school activities, except for Friday’s with Nina and Claude – Nina is her nanny and Claude is Nina’s two year old son, ‘Claude followed Perry all around the house. He liked everything Perry did but he especially enjoyed her making violent hunting noises on the clarinet or playing Black Magic on the piano. Black Magic was Perry’s best piece. She had composed it herself. ‘On Saturdays, Perry and her father visit Honora Lee, ‘So far, all Perry knew about Gran was her name – Honora Lee – and her age – seventy six years old – and that she didn’t have a husband or much memory any more, which is why she lived at Santa Lucia and could never get Perry’s father’s name right.’
Only, suddenly Perry’s Thursday after school activity becomes unavailable when the tutor puts her back out and needs time to think about her options. Despite Perry’s mother’s best intentions, no other Thursday afternoon activities are available. Perry suggests she should visit Honora Lee. And so she does, with lovely baking from Nina each week (What is it with baking and the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards this year?? She even took Ginger Crunch – my favourite. I’m beginning to wonder if there is an ironic wink being given to the Edmonds Cookbook being the only NZ book on the Whitcoulls Top 50 list…hmmm…)
On her walk to Santa Lucia each week she notices dead and dying bumble bees. They are a mystery, and she begins to collect them. Gran doesn’t ever recognise Perry, of course. But Perry never lets that get her down. She looks for the bits in Gran that make sense, and meets her halfway.
‘Gran stopped whistling for a moment and squinted at Perry.
“What is your name?”
“Perry,” said Perry, Very Patiently. “P is for Perry. And don’t say it’s a boy’s name.”
Gran began whistling again. It wasn’t really a tune. It was more like a breathy birdcall.
“You have a most eccentric sense of melody,” said Perry.
That was when Gran had laughed, a sudden rat-a-tat, like gunshots on the tv.’
Gran used to be a teacher, and she loves teaching and organising. So Perry begins to make an ABC book, using the people and ideas from Santa Lucia.
out of order
On the way home Perry told Nina and Claude about the first day of ABC.
‘It’s not really ABC,’ she said. ‘It’s ADV, so far. Gran does it out of order.’
The book is broken into sections, using headings that can seem quite random, but always make beautiful sense by the end of the section. Also, scattered throughout are Gregory O’Brien’s gorgeous illustrations that are quirky enough to seem just exactly right, with letters and words roaming the page seemingly at will, and dead and dying bumble bees randomly littering the pages.
The ACB is a quick read, but it could stand many readings. I’m not sure whether it is a children’s book, though. Although I am sure that there are children who would love the gently paced story of Perry collecting her ACB. However, this is a story about identity and relationships. I think it is a book I would give to adults.
Read this article from The New Zealand Herald, where Kate De Goldi talks about her inspiration for The ACB with Honora Lee.