31 May 2006

Review: New Treasure Seekers

I absolutely love E. Nesbit's children's books, from The Book of Dragons to The Railway Children, and her series about the Bastables is no exception. I've read most of them on Project Gutenberg, since Nesbit is hard to find in bookstores. (Frances Hodgson Burnett is even harder. All they ever have is The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, both of which I like and have, but neither holds a candle to The Lost Prince. The White People is also excellent.)

The trouble with Project Gutenberg is that they have only books on which the copyright has expired. So every so often, I run across a work I haven't read on PG, and immediately snap it up. New Treasure Seekers, by E. Nesbit, was one of these.

This is the third book about the exploits of the Bastable family, of which Oswald, the narrator, is the primary character. The family is rather large (two girls and four boys). Nesbit prefers to portray down-to-earth children, who get dirty and get into trouble just like any kid*, except that the Bastables get into much more trouble than the average kid is capable of causing. She even makes a reference (in another book; I forget which) to Little Lord Fauntleroy, the hero of Burnett's eponymous work, as being "quite a frightful prig."

(Speaking of references, on the very first page of The Magician's Nephew, Lewis mentions "the Bastables digging for treasure on Lewisham Road.")

Thus, Nesbit is capable of delivering a highly entertaining tale that despite having a moral, never gets preachy, a fault that Burnett and Louisa May Alcott both have. The books are also often educational (I am thinking of The Story of the Amulet, in which a group of children travel to several ancient civilizations, including Babylon, Atlantis, and ancient Egypt, and also travel into England's future), but never didactic.

That being said, I personally felt that this book was not as strong as the others in the Bastable sequence that I've read. For one thing, the chapters seemed oddly disconnected, as some were memories of events that had obviously taken place long before events in even the previous two books, but the narrator does not make the timing clear. For another, the book greatly suffered from the near absence of my favorite character, a grownup known only as "Albert's uncle." Albert's uncle may not have a great deal of "stage time" in the first two, but he does provide a perspective that is highly amusing to the adult reader, particularly in terms of the bafflement of the children who are narrating.

Nesbit is always worth reading, whether she is writing for an audience of children or for adults (I think her short story collection, In Homespun, which can be found at PG, is outstanding), but this particular work is slightly below the level of quality I've come to expect from her.

*This does not include me. I got into trouble in preschool because I refused to finger paint due to my desire to keep my hands clean.


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