Book Review: Pigeon Post by Gwen Smith

pigeon-postFirst published on 16th February, 2014 in The Star


Author: Gwen Smith

Publisher: Oyez!, 112 pages

WHEN I was about five, I received my first boxed set of books from my Godmother Evelyne. I still own three of the five books that were part of that set and still read them from time to time.

One of the books is Another Lucky Dip by Ruth Ainsworth, a collection of stories about the everyday lives of ordinary children. There are no mysteries, no amateur sleuthing. Some of the characters are young enough for a wander round the garden to be an awfully big adventure. One of them, Charles, features in several of the stories. Charles has a Useful Bag from which he produces wonderful objects, like notebooks and envelopes, jars and crayons, and sticky tape. He likes to be told stories about when he was ‘small as a pin’.

Then there is the story of a young boy and his precious matryoshka doll. Unlike other dolls of this type, she doesn’t have smaller dolls nested in her body, just a small, wooden red ball. I’ve loved matryoshka dolls since I first read this story, but I have yet to find one that hides a wooden red ball – I have not given up looking.

My favourite story is about three children who spend a day making surprises for their mother. Like the other stories, it’s a quiet tale, not obviously thrilling, although I remember being excited and inspired by the ingenuity of the children and the descriptions of the beautiful, simple, imperfectly perfect things they create for their mother.

The stories in Another Lucky Dip are about the mouth-watering delight of getting thoroughly lost in play that is driven and shaped solely by imagination. Not a lot happens in them, but the lives described are, nevertheless, full and rich, filled with the surprises and adventures ordinary life coughs up in the course of an ordinary day; the characters busy at the difficult, absorbing job of being children.

Gwen Smith’s Pigeon Post and Other Stories is similar in style (Smith writes simply, with a calm, clear voice) and content – a collection of six slice-of-life stories about Malaysian children, and, in A Ride on a Monster, a young monkey.

I feel this sort of book works particularly well with young readers who are just transitioning from being read to to exploring words on their own. If they already love books, they won’t find it strange that the children in the story aren’t glued to various screens. If they are the sort who like the outdoors, they won’t expect the characters to spend their free time in malls or watching telly. Perhaps kids who aren’t allowed out to play may find the lives Smith writes about daring and dangerous. Here are children who walk to school; whose houses wash away in storms; who go picnicking by rivers.

Animals feature in all the stories: Lena rescues and cares for a baby squirrel in Storm Damage; Tina’s cat has the wrong type of kittens in Rainbow Kittens; a chicken bound for the market enjoys a reprieve in Chickens; and a boy is attacked by wasps in The Dangerous Smell of Nangka. A Ride on a Monster describes the fate of Woop, a monkey who is separated from her family as a result of a tree-felling exercise; and, of course, the title story is about Cloud, a homing pigeon who must carry an important message from a girl, Susheila, to her grandfather.

This last is my favourite of the six tales, despite the red herring in the first paragraph (a red herring that might be turned into an important plot point if Smith expands the short story). Lim Lay Koon has provided illustrations for the book and there is a lovely one for Pigeon Post – a  two-page spread showing the village where Susheila lives. A river flows between the pages and a bridge spans the two leaves, with village life depicted on either bank. The details are delightful, especially the tiny bicycles and umbrellas, and even hawkers selling ice cream and keropok lekor.

Chickens is my other favourite, for Lim’s illustrations, and also the very Malaysian, very real story of escaped chickens (I witnessed a similar incident as described by Smith, on my drive up to Penang recently). Sita’s father’s reaction is also so familiar, and I like that Smith didn’t gloss it over.

None of Smith’s stories have neat, happy endings. They are really about stuff that could happen at home, and the way problems are resolved are just imperfect enough to have a satisfying ring of truth.

I just wish there were more stories, and I’m looking forward to Smith’s next collection.

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