Three images from my childhood reading are permanently etched on my mind: a boy diving deep into the sea to rescue his ivory seagull; a tiny carved Indian sitting in a canoe atop a snow-covered mountain waiting for spring-melt to start his journey; a lightning-struck tree dying from the top down and silhouetted against a red and purple sunset (in order: Seabird, Paddle-to-the-Sea, Tree in the Trail).
Each of these was created by Holling Clancy Holling (1900-1973), author and illustrator (with his wife, Lucille Webster Holling) of books that combine geography and history in adventure tales that take readers on voyages across North America and through the world’s oceans. When Houghton Mifflin reprinted some of these in the 1970s, I was thrilled to finally be able to get my own copies.
With full-color drawings on every right-hand page, and text and pen-and-ink margin drawings on every left-hand page, these books are packed with information gathered by HCH in his travels and research. It seems clear that he worked from what he had experienced, from what he knew well. For instance, the Foreword to The Book of Indians (1935) explains the sources of the book’s contents:
In all parts of the country scientists are digging in the earth, writing about what they have found, and the things they find and the books they write are being stored in museums and libraries. Mrs. Holling and I have visited these museums and libraries and have talked with the scientists themselves. Besides that we have lived with Indians. In the northern forests we paddled their birch-bark canoes, and slept in their wickiups. We rode our horses beside theirs across the great plains and camped in their teepees in the mountains. In the desert they made us feel at home in their pueblos. We have fished with them in the surf of the Pacific Ocean.
With HCH, every book involves some sort of journey. Whether it’s along the Santa Fe Trail over the course of two centuries in Tree in the Trail, or down the Mississippi from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico in Minn of the Mississippi, HCH gives us details and drama, history and geography, humans and animals.
It’s difficult to say which is my favorite, but I’m definitely partial to Seabird (Newbery Honor Book), the story of a boy and his walrus-ivory seagull, but also the story of ships, starting with triple-masted whaling barks. Ezra, a young sailor, carves a glorious white seagull from two walrus tusks, with red coral for its eyes, yellow amber for its beak, and black slate for its webbed feet. We follow Ezra and his gull and then his son Nate, grandson James, and great-grandson Ken to the South Pacific and beyond. Whaling vessels evolve into clippers, steamers, ocean liners, and finally air-liners. We learn about whaling (Nantucket sleigh-ride, anyone?), with pen-and-ink drawings that label, for example, the parts of a harpoon, or show how the try-works operate to render the whale blubber into valuable oil. Have this by your side when you read Moby Dick, and you’ll find illustrations for nearly every scene.
Paddle-to-the-Sea (Caldecott Honor Book) may be HCH’s most well-known book (a middling film version is available for viewing on line at Canada’s National Film Board; the ecological slant was not in the book). A young Indian boy in Canada just north of Lake Superior can’t travel, so he carves a man in a canoe to travel for him, and it goes all the way to the Atlantic. The film version omits one of the book’s strengths, the details about each lake, about how locks work, about the logging, iron and coal industries, ship-to-shore rescue, freighters, and several other bits of geographical information. I suppose that this kind of writing won’t appeal to every reader, but I found all of it incredibly fascinating when I was young.
A tiny stretch of the Cimarron Cutoff for the Santa Fe Trail goes through the panhandle of Oklahoma, my home state, so I feel a connection to Tree in the Trail, HCH’s story of a cottonwood tree planted in 1610 by a young man of the Kansas Indian tribe before white settlers began to move across the plains in their covered wagons. As it grows, it becomes a sacred tree for the Indians, a place of sanctuary, a marker on the Santa Fe Trail, a post office, and a witness to all who pass by. HCH explains and illustrates buffalo hunts; the arrival of horses, European explorers and American trappers; covered wagons and wagon camps, spear heads and arrows; in short, he provides us with a primer on life in the West before the American Civil War.
Biology, geography and history combine in two other books by HCH. Minn of the Mississippi (a second Newbery Honor Book for HCH) follows the life cycle of a turtle, as it journeys from Minnesota to Louisiana. Pagoo is set in a tide pool, and its main character is a hermit crab.
The only other HCH book that I have, one of his early ones, is slightly different. The Book of Indians isn’t about particular tribes; instead, it’s about “different types of Indians living in different kinds of country”, i.e., forest and lakes, plains, deserts and mesas, and rivers and sea. It doesn’t have the same design as his later books; there are only a few full-page illustrations, and very few explanatory captions for the marginal drawings. But, as with his later books, HCH informs us through his stories about individuals; here, the individuals are Native American children living in different parts of the country.
There isn’t much about HCH on-line, but you can check out a fan blog here. I’m pleased to know I’m not the only person in love with his work.
In my collection: The Book of Indians (1935), Paddle-to-the-Sea (1941), Tree in the Trail (1942), Seabird (1948), Minn of the Mississippi (1951), Pagoo (1957)