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Farmhouse: Sophie Blackall’s Poetic Illustrated Tribute to Time and Tenderness

Farmhouse: Sophie Blackall’s Poetic Illustrated Tribute to Time and Tenderness

Every year, monarch butterflies migrate thousands of miles from Canada to Mexico. Each passage takes three to four generations, and each generation manages to communicate to the next, without language as we know it, the direction and call of the journey as it dies. Along the way, the caterpillars of the new generation feed exclusively on milkweed — the only host plant of the species, the only taste of home for these eternal migrants.

A house is the milkweed of human life. Within it, generations live out their lives, passing customs and apple pie recipes and personality traits to each other.

One spring not long ago, my darling friend, occasional collaborator, and Caldecott-winning children’s book maker Sophie Blackall bought an old dairy farm that came with a ramshackle house, in which twelve children had been born and raised a century ago; the old lady who sold it to her was one of them.

After years of immersion in the enchanting remnants of their bygone lives — photographs and hand-printed wallpaper, a handkerchief and a wedding dress, old brass keys and dusty books, a box of mud-soaked rags that turned out to be twenty colorful hand-sewn dresses — Sophie brings them alive in her wondrous book Farmhouse (public library) — a consummately illustrated, painstakingly hand-collaged story in the shape of a poem that is a single sentence, undulating with its “ands” and “ors” like a life does.

It begins:

Over a hill,
at the end of a road,
by a glittering stream
that twists and turns,
stands a house
where twelve children
were born and raised,
where they learned to crawl
in the short front hall,
where they posed, arranged
on the wooden stairs,
and were measured with marks
over the years,
where they carved potatoes
and dipped them in paint
to pattern the walls
with flowers and leaves,
and painted the cat,
about which they lied,
for which they were scolded
and maybe they cried
and then were enfolded
in forgiving arms
in the serious room…

…and on and on it goes, as their lives unfold…

…until one day,
the youngest child,
who was now quite old,
took a last look around
and picked up her case
and opened the door
and stepped outside
and into a car,
where her sister was waiting,
to drive to the sea,
which they’d always,
always wanted to see,
and the house
gave a sigh
and slumped
on the stones,
which caused
a slight lean
in its beams
and its bones,
so the door
swung open
to let in
the breeze…

In the author’s note at the end of the book, Sophie reflects on the splendid confluence of chance and choice by which it all came together:

I first explored the house on a late-spring day. Outside, the meadow was noisy with chattering birds, and the wildflowers nodded their heads in the sun. Inside, everything was cool and dark and quiet. The floor was scattered with brittle leaves, a saucepan lid, and a stiff leather shoe. An ornate parlor organ held walnut shells and the curled-up pages of lovesick songs. A waterlogged catalog offered beehives and waffle irons, bedsprings and guitar strings. In the kitchen, newspapers, with reports of milk prices and war, lined sagging pantry shelves of rusted tin cans. A straw mattress slumped in a corner. A calendar still hung on the wall, open to July 1970, the month and year I was born.

A willow sapling grew through a hole in the floor, reaching toward a hole in the roof. Nobody had lived there for a long time. Well, no people, that is. Plenty of animals had taken shelter. Raccoons, judging by the droppings; squirrels, by the walnut shells; swallows, by the nests. Not to mention mice and bats and wasps. It was as well I didn’t know, until a farmer told me later, that a bear had been sleeping in the basement.

I was convinced then and there that I needed to honor this farmhouse.

She honored it with this lovely book. But she also, with much love and much labor, turned the farm into a wondrous residency for children’s-book artists and writers called Milkwood, after Dylan Thomas’s poetic 1954 radio drama Under Milk Wood, which begins: “It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black.” Under the century-old wooden beams, in a majestic library that was once a heap of hay, a new generation of storytellers are gathering to tell stories of what we are and how the world works — stories that, in words and pictures, transmit to the next generations that monarch knowledge of where we are going.

Published November 29, 2022




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