Monday, February 11, 2013

Crazy Jack by Donna Jo Napoli

Target Audience: Middle Grade

Summary: Once there was a boy named Jack who traded away a cow for a handful of beans. But Jack was no fool, he was haunted since the day his father climbed up into the clouds and vanished. When the beans provide a way for Jack to pursue his father, he enters the Giant’s world, where he discovers the terrifying ends of greed and desire.

Type of Adaptation: Retelling

This is a Donna Jo Napoli that I hardly ever hear anyone talk about, which is really a shame because I think she really hit the mark here. If there’s one thing I really appreciate her for, it’s tackling the little-known and little-done stories.

So, with Crazy Jack, we start back when young Jack’s life is happy and whole and lovely. He lives with his father and mother, they are successful farmers, he is studying to become a great farmer like his father. His father has a slight problem with making wagers, but it doesn’t get in the way of anything, and often helps the family out. Jack’s closest friend is Flora, a girl his age who he is already in love with at age nine, and they are unofficially promised to each other when they get older. Life is good.

But because this is a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, we all know that life isn’t going to stay good. And it doesn’t. The country is hit with a terrible drought, that goes on and on. The crops fail, the garden fails, they’re barely getting by. Jack’s father is able to make some wagers, but not enough, and the tension is definitely creeping in. Jack’s father feels like a failure because he can’t provide for his family. Jack’s mother is angry because her husband is being reckless and not thinking and planning realistically for the future. And Jack, nine years old, is caught in the middle of everything.

And then things get even worse. Jack’s father loses a wager, and he loses the fields. He argues that without rain, they aren’t worth anything anyway, but things are worse than they’ve ever been. Flora’s mother and baby brother die, and so he family is able to give them a little in exchange for gravedigging, but it’s little comfort, given the situation.

And then the rains come. Gentle, warm, exactly what’s needed to bring back life. And there they are with no fields. And Jack forgets to fix the coop, and so one of their two chickens gets eaten by a fox, which means no more eggs. And Jack’s mother and father get into a fight worse than any they’ve had before. Jack, desperate to stop the fighting, pulls his father outside to see a rainbow, but that ends up making things worse, because Jack’s father becomes obsessed with finding gold at the rainbow’s end.

In a fit of madness, Jack’s father follows the rainbow to a sheer cliff face and begins to climb. Jack follows him desperately, trying to get him to come back, to convince him that he doesn’t want gold, that it’s not important. But Jack’s father doesn’t turn back. Jack watches as his father makes it to the top of the cliff, steps out into the clouds, and is gone.

The story then skips ahead seven years. Jack is sixteen, and mad. What he watched his father do that day turned him crazy. Each year on the anniversary of his father’s death, Jack throws himself at the cliff face, trying to climb it. He finds himself obsessed with the idea of rainbows and magic and no one can talk any sense into him. He is driven mad by the idea of not knowing what happened to his father.

Times are still very tough, what with not owning their own fields, Jack’s yearly issues, and the not-official marriage to Flora called off on account of crazy. Both Flora and Jack’s mother try to snap Jack out of whatever it is that grips him, but Jack knows because he saw it — there’s something else that went on the day his father died. There’s something about the top of that cliff, and he needs to know what it is.

Eventually, their cow stops giving milk, and so Jack’s mother sends him with the cow to the market. The animal is only good for meat, but they might be able to get a good sum for her.

But on the way to market, Jack meets a mysterious man – a mysterious man dressed in his father’s clothes. Jack soon discovers that the man is a fairy and that he knows how to get to the top of the cliff. He offers seven beans, the colors of the rainbow, to Jack in exchange for the cow. Jack agrees immediately.

He expects his mother to be as thrilled as he is, but she is understandably heartbroken. The cow was all they had left. And now it’s gone, exchanged for worthless beans.

Jack, determined to make this up to his mother, plants the beans at the base of the cliff. Overnight, a beanstalk has grown up the cliff face, but more than that, the entire little valley is full of bean plants. To Flora, who found Jack there, the beans that they can pick and eat and sell should be the real victory. But Jack is obsessed with the stalk.

The beans help, of course, and their fortunes improve, but Jack needs to know what lies at the top. So, one day, he climbs. He climbs the stalk to the top of the cliff face, and like his father before him, at the top, he steps off into the clouds.

And he finds a large home that has to belong to the giant rumors have always said lived at the top of the cliff. Jack is greeted at the door by a human girl, not a giant, though she is taller than the average human girl – Jack at sixteen comes up to her shoulder – and this girl is convinced that Jack has come to save her, to rescue her from the giant who kidnaped her many years before.

Jack agrees to do what he can to help her, but before he can make good on that promise, the giant returns. Jack hides under the bread bowl, and the girl does her best to distract the giant and convince him that he’s crazy, he doesn’t smell Englishmen, where would one come from?

Eventually, the giant falls asleep, but not before Jack sees him with his magic hen, ordering it to lay golden eggs. On his way out the door, Jack snags the hen, heading down the beanstalk with it. But when he gets to the bottom, the hen is an ordinary size, not giant at all, and when he orders it to lay, it lays on command, but regular eggs, not golden ones.

Jack is incensed, and Flora has to talk him down, show him that a hen that lays on command, lots of eggs, without needing a rooster, is more valuable than one that lays golden eggs. Flora stopped by to tell Jack that she’s going to marry a young man who’s been courting her, though both Jack and I note that for someone who is supposedly going to marry someone else, she still seems to hang around Jack’s an awful lot.

Between the eggs and the beans, life is looking up for Jack and his mother, but Jack can’t stop thinking about the girl at the top of the beanstalk, and so, after a few weeks have passed, he climbs up again. The giant’s wife meets Jack at the top of the beanstalk with a pot of gold she wants him to take. She’s thrilled Jack stole from her husband, and wants to help him do it again.

But again, Jack is almost caught. The wife shoves him in the ale barrel, and has a harder time convincing the giant that nothing suspicious is going on. She basically has to agree to sexytimes to get the giant to fall asleep. Jack urges her to come with him, but she can’t without waking the giant. So Jack descends alone, falling a lot of the way as giant heavy iron pots full of gold prove difficult to carry down a beanstalk.

But when he gets to the bottom, the pot, like the hen, has shrunk, and is full not of gold, but of ordinary stones. However, the stones are unending, and always the type Jack needs for whatever project he has in mind. The stones let him fix the roof, build a wall around the fields they’ve bought back for themselves, construct a new chicken coop for their brood, and finally, he takes the pot into the woods and starts to build a stone house for Flora.

Because Jack is still entirely in love with her, and he knows that somewhere, she loves him, too, but she’s afraid. His crazy scares her, and she can’t saddle herself to the lunatic and expect a respectable life. Jack gets that, partly, but he still builds this house for her, and she comes and watches him work.

Her fiancĂ© comes as well, and eventually offers to buy the house. He’s very firm about it, and Jack knows the reason why – Flora wants the house. She wants the house that Jack built, not the mansion William wants to put her in. And he knows that he’s won, as certainly as he knows that he will not, for any price, sell the house.

When William leaves, Jack is left with the overwhelming feeling that something is missing. And something his father said once comes back to him. He said that everyone needs three things in life. Jack’s muddled mind ties this to the beanstalk. He’s only gotten two things from the beanstalk. He needs the third.

So he goes back. And this time, he climbs it at night, and he comes to the house when the giant is out. The wife tells Jack that the giant is always gone at night and will be gone for hours. This is the point where Jack learns her whole story, how she came to be a giant’s wife. It’s also when he learns what happened to his father – he didn’t step off the cliff to his death, he stepped off into the world above the clouds. He met the giant’s wife as well, and he promised to rescue her, but he was caught by the giant and killed.

On the one hand, this news is devastating to Jack. On the other, it’s something he needed to know if he was ever going to truly heal.

Well, the giant returns unexpectedly, and Jack barely has time to be hidden in the oven. The harp is brought out, and Jack knows the third thing he is “meant” to steal. So when the giant falls asleep, out Jack creeps, snatching it up and running for the stalk. But the harp betrays him, calling out to its master and waking the giant.

The giant realizes that his wife has done this, betrayed him and lied to him, so he kills her, a horrible death, but in taking the time to do so, he gives Jack the head start he needs. He gets to the bottom before the giant and chops down the stalk, and stalk and giant fall and shrink as they both hit the ground. In the end, the giant is nothing more than a man.

We skip again in the final chapter, landing months later. Jack is no longer crazy; his journeys up the beanstalk have cured him. Slowly, the magic leeched out of the hen and the harp and the pot, but he doesn’t care. He and his mother live comfortably, and Jack has learned to play the harp on his own, and the music aids his healing. He plays for all that he has loved and lost, and he resolves to give the house he built to Flora as a wedding present.

But it turns out that Flora has been eavesdropping, listening to Jack’s music all night while he has played. And his music touches something in her, and she knows she can’t marry William. She has to be true to her heart. And so she stays with Jack.

I like this novel. I like how Napoli tells us the tale in a way that doesn’t shrink away from the grit and potentially gruesome details, but she manages to soften them. She gives us a plausible explanation for Jack’s actions, and she works some really lovely messages in with Jack’s craziness.

But let’s to the checklist.

Define Jack? Yep. This is a kid who felt responsible for his father’s apparent suicide, so yeah, he went a little crazy. And that really does explain a lot of the problems surrounding this story. He’s not an idiot, he’s just obsessed with what happened and with finding answers. He’s grief-stricken, and he’s never been able to move past that grief because he’s never been able to understand what he saw.

Tie in the mysterious man? This story made him one of the fairy kind, able to look and Jack and see what he needed. And in giving it to him, he was able to cause mischief as well. I like how Napoli tied this in with English folklore concerning the Fae and their legends. It really helped place the tale in a culture. MM wasn’t behind a lot of the shenanigans, but he served his purpose.

Explore the implications of the giants’ world? Not as much as I would have liked, honestly. I mean, there were at least legends of giants, but I feel like a little more could have been done with who they were and where they came from.

Make the ending matter? Yes. This is a story about grief and overcoming it and how our obsessions pull things out of perspective, and it was all quite beautifully done.

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