by George Saunders
illustrated by Lane Smith
In case I wasn’t entirely clear on this point earlier, I love George Saunders. He may be a genius.
Frip is a small (three-house) goat-keeping village. Gappers are spiky orange critters with “multiple eyes like the eyes on a potato.” Gappers shriek with joy when they get near a goat. The goats, understandably, are made miserable by the shrieking gappers. The children of Frip spend all their time brushing gappers off the goats, lugging them to a cliff, and tossing them into the ocean. The gappers march across the ocean floor and attach themselves, shrieking, to the goats all over again.
So what we’ve got here are very persistent gappers indeed. Plus miserable goats and miserable children. Saunders has created a great setup to teach lessons about living in community, helping people, self-righteousness, and grief. He also includes other, lesser lessons, such as: you should not pay a team of men to carry your house into a swamp; “nobody likes the idea of starving naked outdoors”; and “you are not alone in this world, you sweet little goof.”
Lane Smith’s illustrations perfectly convey the oddness of Frip. The strangely angular, textured pictures match both the humor and near-despair of the narrative. The gappers themselves are both fascinating and ugly, with their spikiness, bulging eyes, orangeness, and sometimes visible little teeth. One gapper has a lumpy head, on account of his larger than average brain.
The little girl who, aside from the gappers and the goats, is the focus of the story, is named Capable. Now I’d say right there is reason enough to go buy this book — how often is the ostensible hero a capable girl? And her nemesis is a freaky, shrieking hoard of orange that swarms out of the sea every day. Plus, her father only eats white food, so she has to paint everything with an edible mixture of goo or he’ll starve. So she is really quite something, and someone that every little girl, and little boy too, should know. If I were inclined to ever say anything about somebody’s “inner child” I’d say you need to go buy this book for yours. But I’m not, so I won’t.
The book is as an object, quite wonderful. Half the size of the average illustrated children’s book, it has a solid binding for its eighty-something pages, a translucent dust jacket showing the red, green, and blue houses of Frip (with goats), and there are orange spiky balls on the endpapers. It feels good in your hands; one reviewer said “[t]his is such an enchantingly beautiful and bizarre little book that even if your kids love and crave it, you probably shouldn’t let them have actual possession of it.”
You may need to do a little digging around to find it. Published in 2001, it is neverthless due to certain idiocy on the part of publishers, technically out of print. It is available used on Amazon and other places. Track it down, so you can admire, laugh, wonder, and then do it all over again.