Wednesday, June 2, 2010


WHEN KATHERINE WHITE, first fiction editor at The New Yorker and wife to essayist and children's author E.B. White, did her annual round up of children's books in the December 7, 1946 issue of the magazine, she wrote:
THE HEAVENLY TENANTS, by William Maxwell, illustrated by Ilonka Karasz (Harper). Wholly mater-of-fact children may be unable to sense the rare quality of this book, but imaginative ones will like it. It is to be recommended, too, to adults, for the distinction of its writing and its illustrations....The author's compound of realism, humanity, humor, and fantasy is unique, and the artist and publishers have designed a book of unusual beauty.
She did not mention that William Maxwell had been working at The New Yorker as an associate editor of fiction for ten years, or that Ilonka Karasz had illustrated nearly one hundred of the magazine's covers. (Maxwell's total tenure as a New Yorker fiction editor would last forty years, and Karasz's final tally of covers would reach 187.) During his career as an editor, Maxwell edited and often mentored a list of writers that includes J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, John Cheever, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Eudora Welty, Mavis Gallant, and Frank O'Connor. At the same time, he wrote acclaimed novels such as They Came Like Swallows (1937) and So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980), which received the William Dean Howells Medal for the best work of fiction in the preceding five years. And twice, in 1946 and much later in 1995, he wrote books for children. His first was The Heavenly Tenants.

 "THE MARVELLS WERE GOING to Virginia to visit the children's grandmother." Mrs. Marvell runs about the house, frantic to get the whole family--Mr. Marvell, eleven-year-old Roger, eight-year-old Heather, and the five-year-old twins Tom and Tim--ready for the three-week trip. Mr. Marvell, an unusually inquisitive farmer with academic inclinations, takes the children out to the field just as the sky grows dark in order to share his newest interest: the stars.

"'The zodiac is a beautiful broad region in the sky,' Mr. Marvell said, 'a pathway that the sun travels in the daytime and the moon and the planets at night.'" He points out the constellations and gives a basic lecture: their origin as navigation aids for shepherds and farmers, their names, and their order.

After their lesson, the children go to bed, everything prepared for their trip in the morning. When they rise, their hired man August has not arrived to do the morning chores. The Marvells tend to the farm and then leave. Just as they pull out of the drive, Mr. Marvell sees August down the road and is reassured that the farm will be taken care of. Only it's not August, who is laid up with his sciatica. And there is nobody to look after the farm.

They arrive in Virginia, and everything is as it should be at Grandma's. As soon as night falls, Mr. Marvell retrieves the telescope from the attic, and the family heads outside for another lesson. This time, Mr. Marvell regales his children with a story.

"'Once upon a time there was a man who borrowed a ladder from his next-door neighbor to clean his well.'" From the bottom of the well, the man learns that the stars are out even during the daytime. He spends months down the well, using the narrow view as an asset to study the sky in detail. Eventually, when the man is away learning more about astrology from a schoolteacher, the man's wife goes down the well to do the cleaning her husband has neglected to do. Just then, the neighbor comes to retrieve his ladder, leaving the woman stranded in the well. At last, her husband rescues her, and once she is wrapped and warm in bed, he teaches her about the astrologers of old.

Mr. Marvell then informs the children that Roger was born under Sagittarius--the Archer--and Tim and Tom under Gemini--the twins. Heather wonders if the people of the zodiac are like the family. Then Mr. Marvell notices something funny. The constellations seem to be missing.

At home, the neighbors have noticed something odd at the Marvells' vacant farm: a faint glow emanates from the place at night. The whole town comes to investigate. The firemen rush to the farm, but there is no fire, just a glow. The town wonders about it until "one of Art Anaker's geese was found dead right in the barnyard," at which point they are more concerned with "what kind of an animal killed it..."

"After two weeks August's hip still bothered him, but he grew tired of sitting in a rocking chair, and wondered who was looking after the Marvells' house and animals." He goes to the farm where he finds two glowing fish in a nearby stream, a young archer, who looks much like Roger, two little boys who "almost [could] have been Tom and Tim," a man with a crab in one pail and a scorpion in another. "He had about decided to go when a little girl about Heather Marvell's age came out of the house..." She goes to pick flowers that have grown in droves along the river. Flowers August has never seen before.

At just three weeks, the neighbors notice the glow at the Marvells' has disappeared. The Marvells come home late at night. "Tired though Mr. Marvell was, he went outside to look at the stars." The constellations have returned to the sky. In the morning, the family finds the farm in better than good condition. Everything is like new with odd sparks bursting like an aura around every object. Soon it fades away, and the family concludes "'sparks or no sparks, it's nice to be home.'"

AT THE OPENING TO THE ANNUAL EXHIBIT OF HOLIDAY GIFT SUGGESTIONS at the New York Public Library, William Maxwell and Ilonka Karasz both spoke about their featured book. Maxwell's speech may have featured the story he included in his author's bio at the end of The Heavenly Tenants:
THE HEAVENLY TENANTS is [Maxwell's] first book for children and owes its existence partly to a spell of homesickness on the island of Martinique. To pass the time while waiting for a boat to take him away from that romatic place, he walked along the sea shore night after night, watching the bright stars and recalling every detail of the Wisconsin farm with love and longing. Years later, when Ilonka Karasz showed him a drawing she had made of the spring equinox, he remembered the equatorial stars and his homesickness, and the two of them, collaborating closely, did this book about the zodiac in Wisconsin.
Harper must have felt strongly about the book's potential, featuring it in advertisements in the New York Times with other now classics The Little Fur Family by Margaret Wise Brown and Garth Williams, Pretzel and the Puppies, by the creators of Curious George Margaret and H.A. Rey, and other established greats such as Ruth Krauss, Meindert Dejong, and Marc Simont.

This support was either justified by (or paved the way to) Maxwell's reception of a Newbery Honor the following year for his first outing as a children's author.

A modern reader has to wonder at the buzz and accolades heaped on The Heavenly Tenants. Or rather, he can see clearly that it was a political celebration of two well-regarded and well-connected artists. The book is bogged down by Mr. Marvell's didactic lectures and the absolute lack of conflict. The reason for the constellations' visit is wholly unexplained, and the ending is unsatisfactory. Still, Maxwell's evocation of his childhood love of astronomy, like all of Maxwell's fiction, carries with it a tender warmth and a careful eye for nature that any fan would recognize.

To see all of Ilonka Karasz's excellent illuminations for The Heavenly Tenants (and especially the two color endpapers and title page), see my Flickr set here. Tomorrow I will feature more of her work as a book illustrator, just one facet of a career that involved painting, designing china, textiles, wall paper, and furniture.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

1 comment:

  1. Would love to see more photos of Ilonka Karasz's work. She was a great friend of my mother's back in the 1930's.