In talking yesterday about Brightly Woven, I realized how much I like "textile fantasies." Those would be books in which the textile arts (weaving, spinning, sewing, etc) are front and center; where along with the story qua story, the reader also gets to be part of the making process. And so in the next few days I'll be featuring some of my favorites (with more recommendations to be found in the comments on Brightly Woven).
Tom Ass, or The Second Gift, by Ann Lawrence (1972, Macmillan, middle grade, 141 pages), illustraed by Ionicus, is one of my all time favorite childhood books. Because it makes me feel awkward to recommend an old book that is out of print, I want to offer the reassurance that copies can be found on Amazon UK for a pound...and even with the shipping, I promise that it is worth it (if you like the books that I like).
Tom is the third brother of a family of farmers, but unlike his brothers, he can't be bothered to work hard in the fields. Tom is Clever, and he knows that someday he'll go off to London and find his fortune...but an encounter with a fairy lady changes everything.
"Thomas," she said coldly, "I had a mind to work some gift for your father's youngest son, seeing that I have known good faith and square dealing from him and his family these dozen generations. Now I'm not the one to change my mind, so you shall have your gift, but neither am I one to encourage wasters. My word is this: whatever work you being at sunrise, shall be sufficient to the day --and the sooner you take your road the better." (page 10)
A few mornings later, Tom begins to gather the stones from his mother's garden...and is there all day. But it's not until he spends an entire day mopping up the water he spilt just before dawn that he realizes that the fairy's gift is, perhaps, not as kindly as it might have been. So he sets off for London, and when he meets the fairy again on the road, he loses no time in telling her just what he thinks about his gift.
"You are a Great Fool, Thomas," she cried, "and nothing I can give you will change that, but I'll wish you one thing more: since you will plainly never make anything of yourself, you shall be whatever your future wife chooses to make of you." (page 21)
(Before I go on, can anyone see why Tom is a fool?)
It happens that the next person he meets is a girl named Jennifer, and when she hears the story of Gift #1, she's quick to see all the implications that he's missed. And when she calls him a donkey....that's what he suddenly becomes! Jennifer knows that somehow she's turned Tom into an ass (but not why or how), and Tom knows that Jennifer is his future wife....yoikes on both counts! But what's done is done, so the two travel off together to make their fortune, until such time as Tom is himself again.
And after some wanderings, the two of them go into the textile business, with Jennifer finding work with an old weaver in one of my favorite fictional English cathedral towns. After a happy sojourn there (in which Tom does the marketing and spends happy hours with old Father Cuthbert at the Cathedral) Jennifer decides it's time to move on to London. So she puts the fairy gift to work....and Tom is woken up at the crack of dawn to roll up all the unwanted scraps of cloth she has gathered from the weaver's work.
The roll after roll of lovely fabric that results is the kernel of their fortune, and soon they are established in a little London cottage of their own (with lots of lovely home-making detail of the furniture scrounging sort), and Jennifer begins to do her own weaving, and Tom some more rolling, until their fame and fortune is so emphatically made that one day the King himself wishes to meet the great Tom Ass, notoriously reclusive and the wealthiest man in England. Faced with the anger of the King when she refuses to bring Tom to meet him, the words Jennifer uses to defend him bring everything to a happy ending.
Gosh, I am so very fond of this book. It has just about everything my child self wanted--the historical setting (with detailed black and white illustrations), the magic, the lovely little details about home making, the smart, brave girl to serve as role-model, the romance at the end, the bits of humor...and re-reading it again, just now, was lovely too!
A fine "first textile fantasy" for the young, and a lovely read for any fan of gentle historical fantasy.
Has anyone else ever read anything by Ann Lawrence? It had never occurred to me before today to see what else she wrote...and a few others that sound good are listed on LibraryThing (although they aren't reviewed, so I am going by the titles, and I am wondering if it is perhaps naive of me to think a book called "The Hawk of May" sounds good).