Earlier this year, Penguin Random House announced it would take Mark Twain’s ephemera and transform it into a full-fledged children’s story. The resulting chapter book ― The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine ― will be published in September.
The book is based on a 16-page story recorded by Twain in 1879, after he told it aloud to his daughters before bed. In it, a young man is granted the ability to speak to animals ― including his beloved pet chicken ― and his gift helps him on his quest to save a young prince.
The book is co-written by Twain and Philip Stead, who used the classic author’s notes to craft the tale. Erin Stead, a Caldecott-winning artist, is its illustrator.
The below excerpt is from the first chapter of The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine.
In which we are introduced to our luckless hero
If we concentrate very carefully now, we will find ourselves in exactly the place we need to be. In fact, we will find ourselves in a land not all that far from here — not all that far, but hard enough to find that you’re likely never to get there. I have tried. This land has a name, but it is much too difficult to pronounce. It would not be dignified to try.
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Of course, our land, the United States of America, rolls effortlessly off the tongue and is so easy to find that you’re likely to spend half your life looking for the way out. So already, you see, we’ve described two differences between Here and There.
Another difference to consider: In the hard-to-find-and-difficult-to-pronounce land in which our story takes place, the luckless and hungry remain luckless and hungry for all of their lives. By contrast, in the United States of America, everyone and everything is given a fair and equal chance. It would be rude to believe otherwise!
Here — be it Michigan or Missouri — the luckless and hungry are likely to stub a toe, look down, and discover at their feet a soup bowl full of gold bullion. Eureka! But There, the luckless and hungry are likely to stub a toe, look down, and discover only the dried-up root of a withered, old apple tree.
Which is exactly what Johnny, our hero, has just discovered —
“Eureka!” he exclaimed. He said Eureka!, and not something far worse, because long ago he’d made up his mind never to swear — not even when swearing was the necessity of a situation (as it often is). Johnny’s poor, wretched grandfather swore often enough for the both of them. His cursings hung like a cloud over their unhappy home. Once, when Johnny was very young, a flock of pigeons became lost in this fog and dropped dead from despair, the whole lot of “them belly-up on the roof. That is a fact. And it is, also, the reason that Johnny chose to carry a moral compass, in case he, too, ever became lost and needed to find his way.
Johnny had known no other family. And to say he knew his grandfather would be an optimism at best. And since a great many of the world’s tragedies, big and small, were first thunk up in the minds of optimists, we will do humanity a favor now and stick to the cold facts:
Johnny’s grandfather was a bad man.
Johnny’s only true companion was a melancholic chicken with a peculiar name. Her name was: Pestilence and Famine. Presumably at some time in the past, there were two chickens — one Pestilence and one Famine. But again, we must stick to the facts. Now there is one chicken, and she goes by two names.
Pestilence and Famine wandered over to peck weakly at Johnny’s battered toe in sympathy.
“Thank you,” said Johnny. “I think it will be alright.” He hopped around on one foot. The chicken did likewise, thinking it the thing to do. Johnny smiled at his old friend.
This is how our chicken got her name —
For as long as Johnny could remember, his grandfather would greet the day by thundering out into the yard, kicking dirt into the air, and calling out to no one in particular, Pestilence and famine! Pestilence and famine! Pestilence and Famine thought this was great fun. She would set down her melancholy for a moment, prance around on skinny legs, and flap her ragged wings in delight. Then Johnny’s grandfather would go inside, lie down on the dirt floor, and nap till well past noon. As he slept, he would coo softly and sing a gentle love song. This was when Johnny loved his grandfather best.
Johnny had never heard two words of kindness from his grandfather. And so it was a great surprise to Johnny when his grandfather stepped out of their broken-down shack and into the yard to ask, “Are you alright? Can you walk?”
Johnny’s heart filled with happiness. “Yes!” he said. “I will be alright, thank you!”
“Good,” replied his grandfather. “Then walk to market and sell that chicken for something worth eating.”