[Sidebar] The Worcester Phoenix
April 14 - 21, 2000

[Tales From Tritown]

Reading and


D.B. Johnson's Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, plus Hollis the Mountain Man get spring in his step

by Sally Cragin

New Hampshire graphic artist D.B. Johnson is a longtime fan of 19th-century New England. He's particularly fond of the writers who put the place on the map, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the Alcotts. But his compass needle always points to Henry David Thoreau, who inspired Johnson's charming and best-selling first book for children (ages five to eight), Henry Hikes to Fitchburg. Prompted by a brief passage in Walden, in which Thoreau argues "the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot," Johnson has cast the backwoods philosopher as a bear named Henry (complete with chin beard and frock coat). Henry bets he can walk the 30 miles from Concord to Fitchburg faster than his friend can work to earn enough money to buy a train ticket (90 cents). "If you are lucky enough to get a job in season," concludes Thoreau in Walden. "Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day."

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg is sumptuously illustrated, and the pictures show the rolling New England landscape as fantastically jewel-toned. Period-style interiors are intricate and elegant. Text is spare, frequently one sentence per page, though readers of all ages will want to linger over the paintings, which depict Henry's friend's activity and the hero's. "Henry's friend pulled all the weeds in Mr. Hawthorne's garden. 15 cents. Henry put ferns and flowers in a book and pressed them." Though his drawing style is lush post-Cubism, Johnson was careful to maintain historical accuracy in his storyline. Henry's friend's jobs include filling the woodbox in Mrs. Alcott's kitchen (one of Jo March's dreaded, Sisyphean chores in Little Women); moving the bookcases in Mr. Emerson's study, (RWE was an enthusiastic librarian); and cleaning out Mrs. Thoreau's chicken house. (The latter is perhaps a wry comment on the buttercup-gazing son who ought to have mucked out.)

"I read somewhere that Hawthorne did enjoy gardening," says Johnson. "One of the projects was to work Hawthorne into the picture here, [another was] to have fun with the adult who was reading the story." Recasting Thoreau as a bear was also deliberate. "I wanted to have a story that was fun for kids, so animals seemed to be appropriate," says Johnson. "I chose a bear because Thoreau would like to have been a bear. Bears roam over great distances and can be solitary. He seemed like he was a bear to me. Although he'd been described as a woodchuck by a contemporary, I thought that was too small and too domestic an animal."

Like many New Englanders who march to the beat of a different drummer, Johnson finds Thoreau has spent much time immersed in the work of Thoreau. "As an artist, I've always done what I wanted to do in life, which I think Thoreau was always about. Because of that, I've had to keep my overhead low -- as they say -- because of the nature of this business." Yet Johnson's work already reaches a large audience, as his drawings regularly appear in the New York Times Book Review and illustrate op-ed pieces for the Los Angeles Times syndicate. Though Henry Hikes was written without a publisher or deadline, Johnson put the project together in a month, shipped it off to Houghton Mifflin, and within two weeks he got a call from the publishing company. "They said, `We love this,' " explains Johnson. "So it's a very Cinderella story. Although you have to think about the fact that I've worked in this business for 30 years."

A Cinderella story where Cinderella doesn't have to leave the ball, because Henry Hikes is now in its fourth printing, with more than 60,000 copies in print, and that's before official publication (which occurs this month). "I would have been happy to sell out the first printing -- which was 8000 -- in a year or two, but it tapped into something. And the response has been great all over the country." Undoubtedly, one significant assist was provided by NPR commentator Daniel Pinkwater who rhapsodized about Henry Hikes during Weekend Edition in February. "I thought it would be this four-minute segment, but it went on for 10 minutes. He and Scott Simon read the entire book," marvels Johnson. "The response was immediate and hasn't stopped since."

Johnson will read from Henry Hikes at the Tatnuck Bookseller at 2 p.m. on April 18. Visit the web site at: www.henryhikes.com

WHEN WE LAST left off, Hollis the Mountain Man and Delia Ellis Bell the Partial Yankee (there was a questionable great-great-grandmother) were wrestling with mid-winter colds and seeing who could be the most successful avatar of forbearance. After all, in Tritown, martyrdom is a four-season sport: the last thing a true townie wants to do is ask for help. Since then, the days are longer. More sunlight means the Seasonal Affect Disorder (or "Season-Hell Affect Deadness Disorder," according to Hollis) that Tritownies suffer from is slowly beginning to lift. What happens when you put a bunch of cold kernels in a pot and slowly let the heat rise? Frenzied and random activity, says Ozzie the Wiz, Tritown's resident sage and reference librarian.

For some, the dreaded word is "biopsy." Others quake at the utterance "more rain expected," but Hollis the Mountain Man is a simple soul for whom "spring" paired with "cleaning" prompts dread in his heart. Once the clocks are turned back, and the Mountain Lair is exposed to an extra hour of sunlight, he starts noticing the clutter of winter. In and out of the Mountain Lair.

"I tell you," he tells Delia one afternoon at Happy's Coffee & Qwik-Stop (30 kinds of doughnuts, 20 kinds of lottery tickets, and one kind of coffee). "There's so much for me to do up at the Mountain. At least half a ton of sand is left on the roads that I'll have to shovel into the ditch or get the DPW to pick up. Which they never do," he says peevishly biting into a Mapple cream doughnut (equal parts maple and apple flavoring -- $erena the Waitress is experimenting with the recipes again). "Oh my gahd," he howls, looking at the doughnut suspiciously. "That's different. Completely sweet and sour." He munches more. "Actually, it's pretty good," he admits.

"See, that's just like cleaning," says Delia Ellis Bell, who's jazzed up on three cups of coffee. "You've got to alternate the tasks to make it interesting. For example, start in one room, and only do everything above your knees. Dust, wash the curtains, suds the sills, turn the plants, and when you're all done, you can sweep and vacuum. Simple, huh?"

Hollis shakes his head. Delia's a perennial freelancer, whose jobs include substitute teacher, part-time Town Hall clerk, and artist-historian (when she's a recipient of Lottery money). And every few years she takes up housecleaning-for-hire. Aunt Winnie had secured Delia's latest client, a crotchety old gentleman on the other side of the village green who supposedly needed someone to wash his windows and push a Hoover around. But this job mushroomed quickly. You'll find Delia there every Wednesday, whacking rugs and scrubbing surfaces.

"Getting to do your own spring cleaning?" Hollis asks devilishly.

"Heck no," says Delia. "What fun is that? Maybe I'll wait until I start losing my marbles so at least the prospect of uncovering stuff that isn't immediately familiar will increase the thrill. So what are you going to do about that pile of stuff in your front hall -- the broken snowshoes, the cracked rubber boots, the coats that are too small, the lost mitten, the found hockey stick, and the cases of empties with gunk in the bottom from your home-brew?"

Hollis laughs. Delia definitely had too much coffee today. "Well," he says, "I could put it in a box or bring most of it to Salvation Army, but I'll do what I always do."

"Which is?"

"Build another outbuilding," he says. "It's not like I'm running out of room outside, y'know?"

Sally Cragin prefers cleaning up to cleaning out.

Sally Cragin can be reached at aiolia@aol.com.

The Tales From Tritown archive

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