Friday, February 15, 2013

The Thief and the Beanstalk by P.W. Catanese

The Thief and the Beanstalk by PW Catanese

Target Audience: Middle Grade

Summary:  Everyone knows the story of Jack and the beanstalk. Everyone also knows that Jack's little adventure made him a very rich man. But what they don't know is what happened a long time after Jack....

That's where Nick comes in. Orphaned and desperate, Nick joins a rugged band of thieves in hopes of a warm meal and a little protection. In exchange Nick must help them break into the lavish white castle rumored to belong to an old man named Jack. Legend says it's full of riches from Jack's quest up a magical beanstalk decades ago.

When Nick's dangerous mission leads him straight to Jack, he sees a chance to climb the famed beanstalk himself. But what Nick doesn't know is that things are different from when Jack made his climb. There are new foes at the top now. Ones with cruel weapons and foul plans ? plans that could destroy the world as Nick knows it. Will Nick come down the beanstalk a hero? Will he come down at all?

Type of Adaptation: Continuation

So, like the summary says, everyone knows the story of Jack and the beanstalk. And what PW Catanese has done is return to Jack and his story years later, when Jack is an old rich man and the story of how he got his wealth is little more than a legend, a legend that no one entirely believes. But Jack knows the truth of it, and he is eaten up by regrets for what he did: becoming a thief betraying the trust of the giant’s wife, killing the giant himself.

And this is the climate in which we enter this story. I picked this book this month (well, largely because there aren’t that many Jack novels to choose from) because I was very interested in the aftermath of this story, as evidenced by point on the checklist. Jack, to me, has never been this heroic figure. He was rewarded for stupidity, stole his wealth, and killed a man, with no seeming repercussions. I want to know if there were repercussions.

And in this novel, there are.

But Jack is not the focal character of this novel. That honor belongs to Nick, a young orphan the same age that Jack was when he went up the beanstalk, but the difference is, Nick is already a thief and has been some for some time.

Nick’s parents were killed by a plague some time before, and since then, he’s been stealing everything he needs to survive. But it’s getting harder and harder. Then Nick has a run in with a man called Finch.

Finch is the leader of a band of bandits, cutthroats, and robbers – thoroughly unpleasant folk. And Finch has become obsessed with the story of Jack. Oh, he doesn’t believe that Jack climbed a beanstalk and killed a giant for one instant. But he knows that however the real story goes, the fact is that Old Man Jack is hella wealthy. And he and his band are determined to find a way to break into Jack’s stronghold and rob the old man blind.

But the fortress is impenetrable – smooth white marble, windows only high off the ground, no nearby trees of any kind. There are vines, ivy, growing up one side, but they’re small, and won’t hold the weight of a full grown man.

Enter Nick. They catch him thieving, and offer him a place in their band. The job is simple – climb the vines, get inside, don’t get caught, let them in. Then Nick will get a cut of the gold and be a member of the group for life. Nick isn’t sure he wants to do this, but Finch isn’t the kind of man you say no to. So he agrees.

He climbs the ivy, but his lantern bags against the wall, waking a child within and alerting the guard. Luckily, Nick is dressed in all black and remains unseen, but the house is on the alert. Nevertheless, he makes it inside and finds his way to the center of the fortress.

His intention is to abandon the band, steal enough wealth for himself, sneak out the way he came in, and make his escape. But he doesn’t expect to be captivated by what he finds in the inner sanctum – wall after wall of intricate paintings, chronicling Jack’s journey up a beanstalk so long ago, details so perfect and precise and unknown that Nick is forced to accept that maybe that trip up the beanstalk actually happened.

And then he sees the hen, sitting on a pedestal, and Nick knows if he takes her, he’ll be set. She’s all he needs for eternal, continued wealth. So he snags her. But surprise! The hen is stuffed. And that’s when Jack makes his presence known.

He tells Nick that the hen died a long time ago, and that the harp, too, slowly lost its magic. And Nick learns that Jack is here, mostly alone, with his thoughts and his worries and his regrets. He tells Nick that most of all, he regrets not knowing what happened to Her all those years ago, and he takes Nick into a secret chamber where he says his most valuable item is kept. And what is that? Why, a magical bean, of course.

And then Jack leaves. He leaves Nick alone with the bean and the knowledge of treasures unimagined up above the clouds, and he lets Nick do what he will. Nick takes the bean and leaves. And of course he plants it, and of course he climbs the beanstalk.

Though honestly the growing beanstalk is one of my favorite scenes in the book because it alone of all the adaptations this month actually considers what would have to happen to grow a beanstalk tall enough to reach the clouds and sturdy enough to a) support its own weight and b) be able to be climbed. You are very forcefully reminded in this scene that the beanstalk is a living thing and it needs food and it needs water, and it’s going to find them in the fastest way possible, even if that means sucking the moisture out of the ground for miles around.

Anyway, Nick climbs, and at the top of the beanstalk, he finds this magical land, inhabited by two giants who are, if possible, almost worse than the giant Jack killed so many years ago. These two, who call themselves Gnasher and Basher, are that giant’s sons, and Nick soon discovers that they have learned what happened to their father and are determined to find a way down to the human’s world and conquer it.

Nick discovers this while trying to rob the place and accidentally discovering the giantess who helped Jack locked up in a room by her sons, where she has been for the past 40 years, forced to convert pieces of beanstalk into a super strong rope that will carry her sons down to the world below, and if they make it that far, then the humans really stand no chance of survival.

And Nick doesn’t want to care. He really doesn’t. He wants to take his treasure and go. But Gullinda’s story touches his heart, and it did Jack’s, and Nick finds his better nature emerging. He promises to find a way not only to free Gullinda but also to stop her sons from making it to the world below. And she, in turn, offers him a message for Jack: that he is forgiven.

Lots more happens, Finch follows Nick up the beanstalk, the both of them are discovered by Gnasher, Gullinda is freed, Nick successfully stops the giants’ evil plans with Gullinda’s help, Finch dies, the world below is saved, Gullinda’s message is delivered, and Nick walks away a better person, but the tale up to this point is what is directly Jack and the Beanstalk, so let’s stop there and head for the checklist.

Define Jack? I love this exploration of Jack. That he was a good kid until he gave into this temptation and became a thief, and all these years later, he has regretted his actions his entire life. He has wanted to make amends, but he has been too scared and then too old to plant the beans and make them for himself. So he waits, waits for just the right person to send up in his stead. This is a very real portrait of Jack, and I love it.

Tie in the mysterious man? Eh, kinda. Nick meets him at one point, and demands why he did what he did, but they guy basically just lives to make mischief. Which is, really, explanation enough for me.

Explore the implications of the giants’ world? I’m a big fan of what Catanese has done here – this world on a cloud that floats freely unless anchored by the beanstalk. I like the continuation of the giant’s line, that we get to see his sons here and how his death affected them, and the giant’s wife. But there are still things I’d like answered, like, why are these the only giants on the cloud, and are there others somewhere else, needing magical cornstalks or potato plants to connect them to earth?

Make the ending matter? This entire novel is about the ending of Jack’s tale, and I just love the continuation. Catanese did exactly what I wanted someone to do with this story.

The final review of the month will be up later today – sorry for the late posting. Life got crazy!

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