Who can resist the pathos of an orphan boy under the thumb – and sometimes the cane – of two crone-like and thoroughly evil aunts? That’s poor Zac, the main character of The Blue Umbrella, author Mike Mason’s umteenth book – but his first for kids. When Aunties Pris and Esmeralda show up at his mom’s funeral insisting he come home with them, Zac is surprised and hesitant. But they won’t take no for an answer and so our 10-year-old hero goes to live with them at Five Corners.
Their sweetness and benevolence soon turns to glares, ridicule, threats and canings. Only Porter’s Store, which Zac sees from his bedroom window, and Mr. Porter himself, who seems to have a special relationship with clouds, wind and sun, offer rays of hope. Those are quickly snuffed out when the Aunties forbid him to ever have anything to do with Mr. Porter. But it’s an order that is changed when Dada realizes Zac’s relationship with the kindly Porter may be of use to him. The story becomes a cat-and-mouse tale about getting possession of Mr. Porter’s magical blue umbrella.
Zac gets to know Sky Porter along with a whole cast of fascinating characters: the put-upon dwarf Butler, the Reverend Cholmondeley and his son Ches who is a self-declared atheist, Ches’s sister Chelsea who won’t say a word, Eldy the Balloon Man whom you can hear without him uttering anything, and the terrifying Dada, the Aunties’ father who makes even them tremble and who wants to own Mr. Porter’s blue umbrella more than anything in the world.
The story does have its dark side. The Aunties are abusive in their speech and violent in their use of the cane. Many of the characters have secret pasts. And visits with the evil Dada made my skin crawl. The tale is fantastical enough, however, that youthful readers will probably be able to discern it is fiction. The plot and characters reminded me of books by Roald Dahl. In fact, the plot of The Blue Umbrella begins with a situation similar to James and the Giant Peach.
Mason’s writing was a highlight of the book for me – clever, sensuous and laced with big words like dodecahedron and unctuously that are explained in an “after words” glossary. Here, for example, is Zac’s first impression of Dada:
“Laying the cane across her two open palms, Esmeralda brought it near the oval of fur where Dad’s face was. From the dark cave protruded a bulbous, mushroom-colored thing. A nose. Dada appeared to be smelling the cane. Then he turned his head slightly and massaged a leprous cheek against it like a cat rubbing its scent on a leg of furniture. Zac gaped. The nose, the cheek, seemed more like tumors than part of a face” p. 115.
The story is also rife with Christian symbolism – always discreet but impossible to miss if you’re familiar with the Bible and its themes. Here, for example, are some references to wind:
“What was the wind anyhow, and where did it come from?” p. 103
“He let them (a bunch of balloons) pull him along, relishing the clean power of the wind pouring through his body…. He wanted to give himself to the wind wherever it led.” p. 14
“You are a wind lover. The Aunties do not know the wind.” p. 150
The story tackles some very real and serious issues. When Zac gets to know all about Mr. Porter and his powers he questions whether Mr. Porter isn’t guilty of a betrayal of his own. Who can one trust, and where is God when it hurts are other themes that run through the book – along with weather, of course, which we experience a great variety of throughout.
The book is nicely designed with its colorful cover, its ragged-cut page edges and bookmark flaps front and back.
The self-reading level for The Blue Umbrella is middle to upper elementary and the subject matter may not be suitable for younger kids. However, to my mind this fantasy has Classic written all over it and is one in which readers young and old will find much to enjoy and ponder.