My rating: 6/10. It has its moments, hence the rather generous “6” rating, but I’ve been exposed to Og three times now and I’m still not a complete convert. Sorry, Pierre. And Patsy. This one is a cute Berton family in-joke, and I appreciate your sharing it with the country at large, but my personal enthusiasm for Og and its viridian denizens remains restrained.
My first exposure to this Canadian children’s “classic” was back in the early 1970s, when a keen grade school teacher read it out loud to our class over a series of afternoon reading breaks.
This tweaks my memory – does anyone else from B.C. remember those after-lunch U.S.S.R. periods – Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading? Occasionally these would morph into read-aloud sessions, to the great joy of most of the students in the class, except for those few of us hardcore bookworms who would really have preferred to be left alone to focus openly and with official permission on our own reading choices.
I even remember the book I was sneakily perusing as the teacher read Og. I was deeply engrossed in Jade by Sally Watson – an absolutely marvellous book about an upper-class teenage girl who ends up crewing on a pirate ship, with a desperately swoony captain <ah, sigh> – a saga which I remember with great fondness and which I always meant to track down for sentimental reasons and to share with my own daughter, but which I haven’t yet gotten my adult hands on. Gosh, Sally Watson was (is! – now in her eighties, she’s still writing away, last time I heard) a wonderful writer. But I totally digress. Back to Mr. Berton’s fantasy-land.
I caught bits and pieces of Og but nothing that made me close my own book and listen with great attention. Little green people in a tunnel. And some dead rabbits. That’s about all that stuck.
Years later, as a mother gleefully equipping a children’s library for my own book-loving youngsters, The Secret World of Og kept showing up on all the “best books to share with your Canadian kids” lists I came across. “Well, why not?” I thought. “So many recommendations can’t be wrong.” So Og was duly acquired, in the great big edition illustrated profusely and with more enthusiasm than finesse (Camberwell Art School regardless) by Pierre Berton’s now grown up daughter Patsy.
Our own attempted Og read-aloud session died an early death, as the book was replaced after only an evening or two by Kipling’s Just So Stories, which were a much greater hit with the listeners. Og was soon buried in the stacks, and eventually packed away out of sight. I found it again just last week when I was nostalgically going through boxes of children’s artwork and old lesson papers, preparatory to discarding most of them. Og was a the very bottom of a pile of Grade 3 math worksheets, which was quite a few years ago now. We hadn’t even missed it, or thought about it in the meantime, which is a rather telling state of affairs concerning a book in this household.
“Aha!” I thought. “This will be perfect for the Canadian Reading Challenge! Classic Canadian author, quickie-reading kid’s story – how can I go wrong?”
So, third time lucky, I have finally read The Secret World of Og with my full attention focussed on it, fully prepared, after Captive Reader Claire’s enthusiastic review, to find it at long last quite wonderful myself.
Oh, dear. It wasn’t to be. I liked it well enough, and I can see why others love it, but it still didn’t totally 100% click with me.
I happily admit that I laughed out loud at the best bits: the hilarious Lucy Lawless titles, the marvelous relationship between Paul (the Polliwog), his Pablum, and Earless Osdick the cat, and Yukon King, the small dog who thinks he’s a huge husky. A continually witty commentary comes very obviously straight from Father (our Mr. Berton himself), but I just couldn’t bring myself to much very care for those darned annoying children. And Og itself isn’t a much of a fantasy world, nothing like Alice’s rabbit hole, or the secret rooms of Mary Norton’s Borrowers, both of which seem to have influenced this Berton family fairy tale.
Here’s the story in brief.
The five Berton children – Penny, Pamela, Patsy, Peter, and Paul (aka the Pollywog) – have a playhouse in the woods. One day Pamela looks up from her comic book to see a very small, very sharp saw outlining a trapdoor in the playhouse floor. A small green creature pops up, looks at her, and promptly disappears. Pamela, living in a world of imagination most of the time, and well used to the scornful dismissal of those around her to her observations about unlikely things, neglects to tell anyone about this.
Until, that is, the afternoon when the Polliwog is left alone in the playhouse for a few moments, and vanishes, along with Osdick, into what seems to be thin air. Pamela remembers the trapdoor then, and the siblings manage to worry it open and descend into what turns out to be a tunnel leading underground, to a land surrounding a luminescent river and forests of coloured mushrooms, and populated by hundreds of little green people whose only word appears to be “Og”. Pause for much rambling on about the details of all of this.
The cat is destined for the butcher block; the locals think he is some sort of exotic rabbit, (which quadruped they much love to eat, having discovered the gourmet glories of mushrooms with rabbit sauce); the Polliwog is, as usual, in jail. Needless to say a rescue is effected and everyone returns to the surface in one piece. And that is that.
Some of you might remember the headlines a few years ago, shortly before the revered Pierre Berton’s death at the age of 84 in 2004, when he stated, in a CBC television interview, that he had been recreationally smoking marijuana “since the sixties”. Though he insisted that he didn’t use it when he was “working”, the trippy aspect of the World of Og suddenly looks a little suspicious of something more than mere fatherly imagination!
Okay, okay, I apologize for casting such aspersions. (If you could see me, you’d know that I’m grinning like mad in a conciliatory way right now.) Pierre Berton was awesome; he wrote great books, and by and large was a worthy Canadian literary icon. But you have to kind of wonder… 😉
Some bits of this book are absolutely brilliant; much of it is truly very funny. Give it a look, decide for yourself. Me, maybe I’ll pack it far away again and bring it out to try on the (very much speculative at this point in time) grandchildren. Or maybe not. 🙂