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Thursday, Oct. 2, 2003


"The House of Windjammer," "Boolar's Big Day Out"

"The House of Windjammer," V.A. Richardson, Bloomsbury; 2003; 349 pp.

No matter where you grow up, whether it's in 21st-century Japan or in 17th-century Europe, some things never change. People everywhere, at every time, are at the mercy of larger forces -- political upheavals, market fluctuations, war and peace. With every new chapter in history, their lives get rewritten.

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A good historical novel can tell a riveting story by combining the historical and the personal, the factual and the fictional. The author of such a novel imagines the lives of her central characters unfolding against a rich backdrop of events that really did take place. Alice Leader retold Roman history in this way in "Power and Stone"; Joan Lingard's "Tell the Moon to Come Out" was set in post-civil war Spain.

V.A. Richardson's first novel on a historical theme draws upon vivid descriptions and evocative language to re-create 17th-century Amsterdam, a shipping town at the center of the booming trade between Europe and the newly discovered Americas. By this time, sea routes to India and Africa had been discovered, and the Dutch were competing with the English, the Spanish and the Portuguese.

The fortunes of people who live -- and die -- by the sea are inexorably tied to their ships. So it is for the powerful Windjammer family. When its Star Fleet goes down in the Americas, Amsterdam's premier trading house finds itself floundering as well. The families of the crewmen who drowned want compensation, and creditors line up at the door demanding that debts be cleared. When the anxiety proves too much for Hercules Windjammer and he dies suddenly of a heart attack, his 15-year-old son, Adam, finds himself heir to the Windjammer fortune (or to what the local gossip mill has begun to call the Windjammer curse).

Now Adam, a newcomer to the predatory world of business and commerce, must protect his mother and sisters from his greedy uncle Augustus and from banker Hugo van Helsen, who smells blood and moves in for the kill. If van Helsen could have his way, he'd dissolve the Windjammer Trading Company and take it over. It falls on young Adam's shoulders to learn the ropes as quickly as he can and to keep his father's legacy alive.

The plot thickens. Adam suspects that the family's loyal bookkeeper, Gerritt, is hiding something. A local preacher is delivering inflammatory sermons to incite people against the Windjammers. And finally, for reasons that aren't clear till much later in the book, van Helsen's daughter, Jade, shows an unusual interest in helping Adam.

Meanwhile, Amsterdam is in the grip of tulip mania. These colorful flower bulbs reached European shores from Turkey for the first time in the late 16th century. By the early 17th century, the Dutch were willing to pay absurd sums of money for these coveted flowers, and fortunes were made -- and lost -- overnight speculating on the value of tulips.

From the dramatic opening of the novel, with the sinking of the Windjammer ships, all the way to the rather unexpected ending, there is hardly a dull moment in Richardson's action-packed narrative. This is powerful writing, transporting us with ease to a bustling sailing port where we can almost smell the sea and hear the raucous crowds.

Contemporary maritime trading is rarely fraught with the same risks and uncertainties as it was in Adam's time. And yet, trade itself remains unpredictable -- and its winners and losers make compelling characters for a writer with an interest in history and a gift for storytelling.

For children 12-16. Available at online book stores.

"Boolar's Big Day Out," Sally GArdner, Bloomsbury; 2003; 128 pp.

Remember Boolar? If you've read Sally Gardner's first tale -- about five dolls left out in Paris' Luxembourg Gardens (see this column, May 1) -- his name should ring a bell. He's the smart-suited doll, though he had a pretty minor role the last time around.

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For those who are new to Gardner's "Tales from the Box," here's a quick recap: In her first book, Gardner told us the story of how the haughty Countess learned to survive away from the protected nursery where she'd spent all her life -- but not without a little help from the other dolls.

Much has changed since the bewildered dolls first found themselves depending on the kind hospitality of Mr. and Mrs. Mouse, two park mice. The dolls' little box has been refurbished into a comfortable home for them.

Now that the balmy days of summer are on their way out, Mr. and Mrs. Mouse are in a tizzy, collecting food and storing it away for the winter months. They need all the help they can get -- but Boolar's got his heart set on other things.

He lands himself a lead role as Tom Thumb in the puppet theater playing in the park. Before long the razzle-dazzle of showbiz has Boolar spellbound -- but what captures his heart is the star of the show, a puppet called Plum who has the face of a fairy princess.

Boolar's head is soon stuffed with notions about how a life traveling with the theater could be far more promising than a life spent in the park. He can't be bothered hanging out with the other dolls any more, or helping them collect food. His puppet friends are having a whale of a time.

One day, the park is hit by a storm and the poor dolls find their box house blown away. Boolar's luck starts running out, too. His romance hits the rocks and so do his career prospects in the theater.

Boolar begins to realize that though life beyond the box is exciting, it's important to have a place to call home and old friends to call family. He's a little late to make amends -- unless he can find some way to make the dolls forgive him.

In their flaws, Gardner's dolls seem almost human. She presents their little dilemmas with an affectionate eye and a warm sense of humor. Once again, she tells a classic story about the value of sticking by your friends and knowing who you are.

For children 7-9 years. Available at online book stores.

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