A Kid for Two Farthings

Kid for Two FarthingsThis 1953 novel by Wolf Mankowitz is set in a Jewish neighborhood London’s East End, where a little boy named Joe lives with his mother, His father has gone to Africa for reasons that aren’t fully explained (to work in the mines, I assumed), and so Joe’s mother supports them by working in a milliner’s shop. Their downstairs neighbor, a tailor named Mr. Kandinsky, is a central figure in Joe’s life, eating meals with Joe and his mother and keeping a friendly eye on Joe when his mother is away at work and Joe is left free to wander the neighborhood.

It’s Mr. Kandinsky who tells Joe about the power of unicorns to grant wishes, and Joe, who wants to see him and his neighbors all get the things the want, decides that a unicorn would be a much better pet than the day-old chicks he regularly buys at the market only to have them die soon after. So Joe heads to the market in search of a unicorn, and at the end of the market, he finds one. Its horn hasn’t grown in, and its legs are twisted, but Joe must have it. The little goat unicorn, soon named Africana, becomes Joe’s constant companion, as Joe imagines them going to Africa together, finding their parents, and having great adventures.

This is a light little book, meant, I think, to be charming and sweet while also revealing some of the difficulties of working-class life—a celebration of the imagination and innocence of children and the power of hope even in hard times. I, however, couldn’t quite connect with it. Some scenes were amusing. Joe’s imaginings about his African adventures were fun. And the ending, involving a marriage proposal and a bittersweet farewell. And I appreciated the way the adults generally handled Joe’s fantasies with kindness. Yet…

I think part of what was going on for me is that I needed more context. The Bloomsbury edition offers no introduction or background information. Joe’s father’s journey to Africa may have been a common sort of thing at the time of the story, but given the adults’ tendency to feed Joe fantasy, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Africa story was a euphemism for some other abandonment.

I also couldn’t stop fretting about Africana. He’s a sickly baby goat living under a table in a tailor’s shop! Several characters do express concern about his health, observing that a “unicorn” like him should be lively and “full of beans,” but it takes them much too long to do anything about it. I know that standards around animal treatment vary across times and places, and there’s no actual cruelty here. Still, Africana was suffering, and I wanted someone to help, and my worry about him kept me from sinking in to the rest of the story. (Things turn out well on that score—or as well as can be expected.)

Have you ever had niggling worries like this that take you out of a story?

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8 Responses to A Kid for Two Farthings

  1. Lisa says:

    I recently read a Monica Dickens novel where one of the characters was raising rabbits, and I spent the first half of the book worrying that something awful was going to happen to them. Half my mind was always on those rabbits, rather than the characters or the plot. I’d probably be the same way about the goat.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m glad it’s not just me! I felt kind of bad about being so distracted about the goat, but I couldn’t see the story as charming when little Africana was clearly not well.

  2. YES, I have had this exact kind of niggling worry in my reading before. It’s usually something that I feel the author isn’t giving its due weight — like raising a goat correctly! — and until the author addresses it in some way, I just fret about it and don’t get any reading done.

    • Teresa says:

      Not giving it due weight is a good way of putting it. The situation with the goat in itself wasn’t bad for a story, but I wasn’t convinced until near the end that the author saw the circumstances as a problem. It was handled well in the end, and a couple of adults had a great conversation about it that would have assuaged my concern if it had happened earlier.

  3. Deb says:

    I’m not a cat lover (I’m really more of a dog person) but there are several references of casual cruelty toward cats in the ANNE OF GREEN GABLES series of books–including a scene in one of the later books where a boy kills some cats! The information is communicated so blandly that I always find it distracting, especially in light of what we now know about the connection between animal cruelty and other aberrant behaviors.

  4. Jeanne says:

    You know, I read this and thought to myself that I haven’t experienced this, so I didn’t comment. Then I had second thoughts and came back to say that no, I don’t usually have that much distance between me and a story while I’m reading it.
    I don’t really like to admit that, especially in this company. And I think it was a good question to get some comments going.
    The process of thinking about this tells me some things I didn’t really want to know about commenting on blogs about books!

    • Teresa says:

      It’s interesting that you describe the phenomenon as being at a distance, because for me the problem was that I was wrapped up in one part of the story, but that part wasn’t what the author seemed to want me to worry about. What I needed was some distance from the poor little goat so I could care out the people in the story.

      And you don’t need to feel bad for not having experienced this! I felt like a bad reader for letting it bug me so much. I wasn’t reading the book on its terms but letting my own animal obsession distract me.

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