Mark Twain Forum Reviews: The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine by Mark Twain & Philip Stead

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The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. By Mark Twain and Philip Stead. Illustrations by Erin Stead. Doubleday Books for Young Readers, 2017. Pp. 152. Hardcover. $24.99. ISBN 978-0-553-52322-5 (trade); ISBN 978-0-553-52323-2 (library binding); ISBN 978-0-553-52324-9 (ebook).

Readers of this review may not be familiar with story-telling quantum mechanics for the simple reason that this reviewer is its only theorist and perhaps its sole subscriber. This theory of the subatomic underpinnings of story-telling is no different from the physics involved in broader quantum mechanics: Several different versions of a story can begin at the same place at the very same time, travel various distances by various routes, and yet all end up in the very same place at the very same time, and all of these seemingly contradictory versions can peacefully and simultaneously coexist. However, if particles from one version of a story collide with particles from another version, energy is released that can be observed.

An example of story-telling quantum mechanics in action is the oft-repeated account of how Mark Twain structured his bedtime stories for his daughters in their Hartford home. It is said that Twain would base his stories on the bric-a-brac that stood upon the mantel, beginning a new story each night with the painting of the “cat in the ruff” and ending it with a girl named Emmeline. Every story began and ended at those points but took a different path, with no repeated events allowed. Twain himself reported that if any particle from one story collided with a single particle from a previous story, it provoked violent explosions of energy from his observant audience of two or three. (This was hard work, and some Twainians cannot help but suspect it was no coincidence that he killed off poor Emmeline when he got the chance in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine puts this theory to the test. The story is inspired by sixteen pages of explicit notes left unfinished by Mark Twain in 1879, and discovered in 2011 in the Mark Twain Papers by well-known Mark Twain scholar John Bird, who noticed a bracketed note by Twain at one point in the narrative that records Susy’s response to the tale. Bird suddenly recognized that he was reading what are very likely the only notes Twain ever preserved for any of the countless bedtime stories he told his daughters. After the University of California Press declined to publish the unfinished story, Bird, with Mark Twain Project (MTP) editor Bob Hirst’s cooperation, brought the notes to the attention of the Mark Twain House and Museum. Tina Wexler of IMC Partners, on behalf of the Mark Twain House, showed them to Frances Gilbert of Random House, who arranged to have the story reconceived and completed by the Caldecott Medal-winning husband and wife team of Philip (text) and Erin (illustrator) Stead. Doubleday Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Random House Children’s Books) has announced a first printing of 250,000 copies, and sales of the book will benefit the Mark Twain House & Museum, the MTP, and the University of California Press.

Unlike Twain’s bedtime stories in Hartford, his story about a kidnapped prince was first told in Paris when Clara was five and Susy was seven, and was based on a picture in a magazine, not the bric-a-brac on the mantel back home. Twain’s notes sketch out in telling detail the experiences of a boy named Johnny, whose dying mother leaves him some seeds she was given by an old woman she believed was probably a fairy. After she dies, Johnny follows her careful instructions, planting and watering the seeds, and eating the flower that blossoms forth, which gives him the magical ability to communicate with all kinds of animals (anticipating Dr. Doolittle by four decades). He first meets a kangaroo (which provoked Susy’s comment that Twain recorded which in turn led to John Bird’s recognition of what the story represented), and soon all of the animals of the forest join forces to build him a new home. One day Johnny finds a royal handbill offering a reward to anyone who can rescue the king’s son who has been kidnapped by giants. Johnny, with his animal friends, heads to the king’s castle and strikes a bargain after demonstrating to the skeptical king that he–a small insignificant boy–could indeed converse with the menagerie now under his command. He soon sets off with his animal friends to rescue the prince, tracking him to a cave guarded by two dragons who never sleep, and there, without warning, Twain’s notes abruptly end.

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