[Russell Hoban was] "a maverick writer of extraordinary imaginative gifts and highly original turn of phrase; although he was sometimes compared to Tolkien and to CS Lewis, he conformed to no obvious literary tradition...His was a unique vein of magical fantasy, taking themes...that seem too devastating for contemplation, and turning them into allegories in which humour was combined with intense imagery and narrative momentum."
Obituary for Russell Hoban, Telegraph newspaper.
Soonchild is a very special treat, and we're all the more lucky to have it as it is a posthumous work. Hoban truly shone in the field of both adult and children's literature (remember the Frances picture books, Turtle Diary, The Mouse and His Child, or Ridley Walker?), and Soonchild is as good as his best. Although it's not a picture book, it is generously illustrated in black and white by Alexis Deacon, who captures the vivid, worldly-yet-otherworldly atmosphere of the book majestically.
The hero of Soonchild is Sixteen-Face John, an inuit shaman. Being a shaman, he walks through the world of spirit as well as that of earth. But the world of spirit isn't what it used to be in the time of the ancestors:
"Some of the spirits of the place have moved away, others have died. Yes, spirits die. They die when they're no longer taken notice of, no longer spoken to. But there are still some who live on the best they can and answer if they're spoken to in the proper way...Spirits like a lot of attention. They like to be admired, and the shaman has to know how to please them so they'll be friendly to his people."
Sixteen-Face John begins to hear whispering in the spirit world. "The whispering was in his head and he heard it when he was sleeping and when he was awake. It was the kind of sound a glacier might make as it slides toward the sea, inching in the night. He couldn't make out any words and he was thankful for that...There was no doubt in John's mind that whoever was doing the whispering was waiting for him in one of those places where shamans have to go so he thought it would be a good idea to stay out of those places." One problem, though--his wife, No Problem's, belly is big with a child who won't kick, won't move, won't come out. His child doesn't believe there's a world left to come into, because she can't hear the world songs any more. Is the problem with the world, or is the problem with John? Because he's no longer the shaman he used to be, either...
Of course Soonchild includes a Big Dream, a mythic journey, companions, and danger. After all, what father wouldn't face anything to bring his child into the wide world? But it's also populated with the most amazing characters. Here's how Hoban describes Sixteen-Face John:
Sixteen-Face John was the big fear man. Nobody was as afraid as he was, nobody had so many faces to be afraid with. If a thing was too much for him to face with his first face, he would go to his second one and so on down the line. What I'm saying is that he had sixteen different faces for looking at what scared him. I can't tell you how he did it because he himself didn't know how he did it, it was just what he did."
Now there's an interesting hero. Later Hoban tells us that "His number one face had the kind of smile you right away distrusted." That's so great. And here's how we're introduced to No Problem, Soonchild's mother:
"No Problem was a big, strong woman with the kind of face that made you not want to make her angry. She used to beat all the boys at wrestling when she was a girl but now that she was a grown woman she spent most of her time scraping hides and making kamiks and atigis and that kind of thing. So there she was with her big belly. When people asked her if she wanted a boy or a girl she said she wanted a girl. 'I could use some help around here,' she said."
Hoban has a great sense of humour, too:
"People used to ask him how he got to be so scared. He told them that he started out scared and as time went on he got a little more scared every day. 'There's so much to be afraid of. Listen to the wind, how it's moaning with the voices of the dead, the cold and lonesome dead. They're afraid the same as I am.'
What of? they wanted to know.
'They're afraid the world will go away and so am I,' said John. 'Aren't you?'
No, they said, they weren't.
'Don't you feel it slipping away?' said John. 'Like your pants falling down?'
Maybe, they said, John felt that way because his pants were falling down. He had a big belly and a small bottom so that was bound to happen, what did he expect."
This is the kind of story that's really timeless, but it happens to take place in the present day. It's magical and distinctive and stirring, but also very down to earth. This is published as a teen book, I think because of a brief reference to Sixteen-Face John's bad habits (these include spending the night with various women of his acquaintance) but if you're not fussy about protecting children from things like that it could easily be read by middle-schoolers (and really, I don't think most children would pick up on the reference).