Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on September 9, 2021
You can’t read children’s literature while constantly looking for the elements you prefer in your adult literature. I mean, you can do it, but you’ll almost always be disappointed. Still, grown-ups just love it when a picture book makes a sly allusion only they might get, or tries on a narrative technique they think is slick. I’m not blameless here. I love a clever bit of children’s literature that appeals to my grown-up-itude as much as the next person. I have to remember that some of the very best books for kids are the ones that can appeal to kids AND adults in equal terms. Case in point: New in Town by Kevin Cornell. As an adult, I’m enamored of the sly storytelling and unreliable narration. A kid? They’re going to incline towards the highly detailed, eye-popping art, bright colors, and disturbingly toothy troll. And who can blame them?
What was it John Gardner once said? That there are only two plots? Yes, I believe he said the two plots break down to “A stranger rides into town” and “A man goes on a journey.” Always taking exception to the “man” part of that sentence, I think it’s fair to say that the beginning of New in Town fits the first plot perfectly. You see, in the little town of Puddletrunk, there is a problem. Situated on a veritable island of stone, surrounded by a vast chasm on all side, the town suffers from bridge-hungry termites. Periodically they destroy bridge after bridge, until now the town is up to Bridge #272. And in this town lives Mr. Mortimer Gulch, a bridge troll with bridge-building expertise. More than happy to dip into the pocketbooks of the citizens to pay for the repairs, he finds a recently arrived repairman unwilling to cough up any dough. The repairman says that in lieu of payment he’ll repair the town’s clock tower for free. This solution sits poorly with Mr. Gulch, and in time the troll’s attempts to one-up the little repairman meet with an end he couldn’t have seen coming.
A bridge troll that’s figured out how to bilk people out of their cash without having to live under a bridge to do it? I must give full credit to the character of Mr. Mortimer Gulch. Resembling nothing so much as a green Milton Berle (if Mr. Berle had filled his mouth with not just his own pearly whites but those of other people as well), he’s a classic trickster character. It’s clear that he’s kept up this scam, successfully, for years. So how do you defeat a trickster? At his own game, of course. Now whether or not the clock repairman is on to Mr. Gulch’s game at any point in the proceedings could be a matter of some debate. Is the trickster tricked? There is one hint near the end indicating that there may be more to our wide-eyed repairman than meets the eye. Near the close of the tale we learn that since there was plenty in Puddletrunk that still needed fixing, he decided to stay on. In his hand is a list of those things that need a fix. Only one item is crossed off… and it isn’t the clock tower. A single red slash goes through the first item on the list: “Bridge”. The implications, I think, are pretty darn clear. Particularly when you notice that he also has small blueprints of that bridge ... and it looks exactly like the clock tower.
I may have mentioned that the book has an unreliable narrator, and I’d stand by that claim. Throughout the story the flowy, flowery script describes the vast generosity of Mr. Gulch. Even as your eyes show you how he’s set up a cushy little life for himself, waited on hand and foot, the text seems straight out of his own mouth. He’s an “awe-inspiring orator” and “a master of motivational rhetoric”. Million dollar words for a fellow unafraid to make everyone else do all the work. This is a book that’s telling kids one thing but showing them another. I’d love to know how many kids catch on to Mr. Gulch’s game before the inevitable bridge-chewing incident that shows his true colors.
And speaking of colors, have you seen this art? I’d last encountered Cornell’s work with his book Lucy Fell Down the Mountain which is pretty much what it sounds like. I remember being very taken with the art at the time. Here, the artist doubles down on his apparent hatred of heights (a lot of things fall from great heights in his books, I’ve noticed). Cornell’s characters here are perhaps best described as “Muppet lite”. You get the distinct impression that if the Henson Company ever attempted an adaptation they wouldn’t have to stretch very far. Now look at where these people live. I’m not ashamed to say that I reread this book multiple times and in doing so came to the rather remarkable conclusion that if you do so, you see that Mr. Cornell has a very keen sense of geography. The town of Puddletrunk is cramped, buildings having to be wedged in together on the small spit of land that rises from the gulch. But when characters move around the space, everything works out. The repairman’s hotel room in relation to the clock tower never changes. The geography is constant.
That unnamed clock repairman, our hero, is just a small little fellow too. He hardly has any expressions at all and it is his guilelessness that fools Mr. Gulch into thinking him another easy mark. As for Mr. Gulch himself, he’s fantastic. Who can resist the horrible/wonderful reveal that Mr. Gulch has been gnawing on all manner of sundry woodwork all this time? That shot of him with his jaw unhinged, teeth clamped around one of the tower’s legs, is the stuff of delicious nightmares (there are even little tooth marks on the wood from where he’s already striped shavings away). And look how Mr. Cornell adroitly changes your perspective. At one point the reader actually IS Mr. Gulch, his/your green hands reaching out in supplication to the clock repairman for wood.
I’m not even truly telling you about the millions of tiny details in the book either. Did you notice that Mr. Gulch put on purple gloves when he committed his dastardly crime? When he tips the clock over with a single finger, the glove has already come off the non-tipping hand. Did you notice that there’s an establishment in town called “Tall Gus’s Quinine Emporium” (I am now in the process of determining which of the townsfolk is Tall Gus, since my 75% sure Cornell has a character arc for each person pictured). Did you realize that the repairman has clearly moved into Mr. Gulch’s more spacious place of residence at the end (the argyle socks, pickled squids, and self-portraits are a dead giveaway)? Or the blue Jell-O served at the celebratory bridge party that appears as random globs in the aftermath? There is more to pick apart here than you’d find in a Where’s Waldo book, for crying out loud.
Folks, we live in an era of scam artists. People who tell us exactly what it is we want to hear and take what they want from our trusting hearts, minds, and pocketbooks. And I’m not saying that I want our kids to grow up jaded and mistrusting of others. What I do want is for them to trust their instincts, do their research, and ask as many questions as possible. There are far too many Gulches out there, offering cures that are worse than the diseases (heck, sometimes they get to be president). So if New in Town is just one of a million tiny answers to the question of how we create a new savvier generation, that’s good enough for me. An exceedingly clever, funny, eye-popping story about not falling for the words of silver tongued devils. Particularly when you find out where those tongues have been.