Thursday, September 10, 2009
Facing Fears with THE THREE ROBBERS
There are very few books from my childhood that were ever ‘lost’ to me. I have a half-dozen younger siblings, I taught nursery school, I was a bookseller… when my peers were ‘setting aside childhood things’, I was still encountering them on a daily basis.
But despite this, there are a handful of books which have slipped through the cracks. Some are obscure and long out of print and I’m sure they’ll never surface, some are remembered but I can’t find them (anyone else remember a staple-bound, die-cut Golden Book THE FRIENDLY LION?), and a few I’ve been lucky enough to run across at unexpected times.
Years ago when I was bookselling, I was straightening the shelves in paperback picture books when I came across a book which was just oversized enough to stand out… I pulled it off the shelf and gasped. A dark, almost sinister cover was before me. Three tall black hats, six gleaming eyes, a frightening red axe… I grinned and sighed and felt a rush of glee. I sat on the floor to get reacquainted with Tomi Ungerer’s THE THREE ROBBERS, a friend I’d not seen in decades.
The book follows the exploits of three robbers, cloaked in black, who torment their victims with an axe, a pepper blower, and a blunderbuss. Citizens are terrified—to the point that ‘Women fainted. Brave men ran. Dogs fled.’ Their horrible reign continues until the night they stop a carriage wherein the only thing of value is an orphan. They take Tiffany back to their lair where she convinces them to do some good with their plundered wealth, and they open an orphanage. Over the years, an idyllic town springs up around the orphanage and the citizens erect towers in honor of these unlikely foster parents.
While the story does have a happy ending, the bulk of the tale isn’t comforting. Here is a fierce trio, taking what they want at will and with a measure of violence. They chop up carriage wheels and threaten people. I’m sure my exasperated childhood self exclaimed, ‘They’re even mean to the horses!’ They take a small child because there’s no other treasure to steal.
The illustrations don’t soften the story in any way. They are dark in both mood and appearance. An image early in the story shows the robbers in silhouette, their weapons brandished and threatening against the night sky. Even the final image of the town is heavy with a swath of black and many others are easily 2/3 solid black ink.
Finishing the book as an adult, I was confused. And worried. And concerned. What was I reading? Was this really a childhood favorite? Why did I ever connect with this book? And how could something so scary resonate with me— I’m a chicken who can’t even watch previews for horror movies. I don’t think I wanted to escape my family until my tween years. I doubt harbored a secret wish to be a robber. And yet, this was a book I checked out from the library repeatedly as a child.
The recent Phaidon hardcover edition is open on my desk as I write this and another read still hasn’t helped me understand why I like it so much. Unfortunately, I’m too tied up in the memories to look at the book objectively. I don’t think figuring out the book’s appeal would unlock any mystery of my personality, but I would like to know what the draw was to my five-year-old self. But the confusion my adult self feels wouldn’t keep me from sharing the book. It’s not a title I’d give as a gift to just any kid, but the right child might just find it appealing—and maybe even draw on it to face their real-life fears.
THE THREE ROBBERS by Tomi Ungerer, ISBN 978-07148-4877-8, picture book