The Neddiad: How Neddie Took the Train, Went to Hollywood, and Saved Civilization
by Daniel Pinkwater
Go West, Young Man!
A review by Kelly Everding
It may be true, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, that "a child is a curly, dimpled lunatic." But much the same could be said for Daniel Pinkwater, who is 60-something, bald, certainly dimpled, and quite definitely -- and deliciously -- a lunatic. Pinkwater is the author of over 80 books for young folk of varying ages, from toddlers to young adults, and can easily tap into the strange and wondrous workings of the lunatic child mind -- and by extension the minds of those of us who have not quite lost that wild perspective on life. My first encounter with Pinkwater's work was a book called Guys from Space, a wonderful picture book illustrated by Pinkwater himself about some aliens who land in a kid's backyard and invite him for a ride. He gets permission from his mother, as long as he is back for dinner. They go very, very fast to another planet.
"What planet is this?" I asked.
"Who knows? Some planet," the guys from space said. "Let's get out and look around."
"How do you know if there is air on this planet?" I asked.
"If there is no air, you can't breathe," the space guys said.
"Then what?" I asked.
"Then we run back into the spaceship and close the door," the guys from space said.
I knew I had discovered a genius, and such classics as Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, Borgel, and The Snarkout Boys and the Avacado of Death confirmed it. Pinkwater's zany plots, tempered by a dry wit and excellent comedic timing, hits the perfect note and captures the mindset of a child: the matter-of-fact way of seeing and accepting whatever comes at you, the willingness to take on any challenge, and the realization that the adult world is weird but you just have to make the best of it, because you are headed that way yourself. On his web site, www.pinkwater.com, Pinkwater provides insight into his writing theory. He says, "If you're eight years old and then you get to be nine, you don't stop being eight years old. Likewise, the nine-year-old is incorporated into the 10-year-old, and so on." Perhaps that is why his books have such broader appeal, bringing out the kids buried deep in each of us.
Pinkwater's new book, The Neddiad, is ostensibly for ages 10-14, but don't let that stop you. This book has it all: high adventure, mystery, mythology, a ubiquitous shaman named Melvin, and, of course, the requisite fat guys from outer space. The epic journey begins in Chicago during the post-WWII years, as Neddie Wentworthstein's family decides to move to Los Angeles on a whim -- the whim being Neddie's and his father's "lifelong ambition" to eat a cheeseburger at the Brown Derby, a restaurant in Los Angeles famously shaped like a hat. A week later they and all of their possessions (including a dozen parakeets) are loaded onto the Super Chief, a train headed West. Many a Pinkwater adventure begins with a craving for food, and this one is no exception. During the train ride, Neddie records the food they eat on the diner car, including prices -- "Native Mountain Trout Sauté with Bacon ($2,75)" -- and records a meeting with Colonel Ken Krenwinkle, who sparks Neddie's imagination with stories of the Old West. The charm of The Neddiad is in the stories, the many, many stories that come out of talking with people, learning their history, the history of the country, and by just observing. Neddie enjoys looking at the passing landscape: "Watching it all go past the windows of the train was like reading a book, one you don't understand but one good to read just the same." Neddie gets the first inklings of his connection to the world, one that will help him "save civilization" later on. "I hope it doesn't sound too crazy to say that some of those mountains, and mesas, and towers were like...alive."
When the train pulls into Albuquerque, New Mexico for a brief stop, Neddie and his family get out and visit the Indian Building where Neddie fatefully meets Melvin the shaman. Neddie has the same feeling in the Indian Building as he did on the train: "It was all one thing: the fire, the headdress, the flute guy, the loom, the stuff on the tables....it sort of all came alive, and you knew something." Melvin the shaman sees that Neddie gets it "exactly right," and gives him a little turtle carved out of stone. Once Neddie becomes the protector of this mythical talisman, his adventure really takes off. He gets left behind at one train stop accidentally, only to meet up with his future best friend Seamus Finn, whose father Aaron Finn is a swashbuckling movie star of the time. The Finns drive Neddie the rest of the way to Los Angeles, along with Billy the Phantom Bellboy, a ghost who is ready for some adventures too. When they stop to see the Grand Canyon, a nefarious fellow named Sandor Eucalyptus tries to steal the turtle from Neddie, but fails.
This is only the beginning of Neddie's stewardship of the mysterious turtle, however; Pinkwater weaves together many fun and strange predicaments for our hero Neddie, all opportunities to learn about history and mythology, and to meet new and interesting people. And although some of those people are not so nice -- their actions motivated by fear or greed -- most of his interactions with different kinds of people are positive, and allow for a smooth transition from Neddie's old life in Chicago to the new one in Hollywood. Pinkwater expertly weaves his tale, slowly working in the story of the turtle's existence throughout the ages and the impending doom its destruction might cause, and Neddie's innocent bumbling along without any idea of what to do. This predicament mirrors the late 1940s America, a country aching to get back to normal after the long war, even with the heavy cloud of possible atomic annihilation hanging over everyone's heads.
Neddie really couldn't get through this adventure without the help of his new friends, including Seamus and Al from his new school, the Brown-Sparrow Military Academy; Yggdrasil (Iggy), a bossy but reliable girl named after the mythological World Tree; and Melvin the shaman who shows up in Los Angeles under the guise of Sergeant Caleb at the Military Academy. Melvin seems to appear in many places at the same time. As Billy the Phantom Bellboy puts it, "Shamans can do stuff. You know how people always say there's a reasonable explanation for things like this? Well, there isn't." We find out that Melvin appeared to Seamus's father and Billy in Canada (while at the same time he was performing his duties as Sergeant Caleb in Los Angeles):
"He said you boys were fine, and everything was going fine, and there's nothing to worry about," Aaron Finn said. "And he also said there was some kind of major calamity about to happen, the city of Los Angeles was in danger, and civilization as we know it might be coming to an end. Then he asked for an autographed picture of me. I gave him an eight-by-ten glossy."
That's sort of a mixed message," Iggy said.
With his trademark shtick, Pinkwater packs this book with everything kids love: Indians, cowboys, prehistoric creatures, mythological beings, aliens, and imminent disaster. And even though the subtitle hints at the outcome of the novel, you would never guess how Neddie beats the evil that dares to enter this plane of existence. Neddie rises to the occasion spectacularly and mythically, and it all comes from a special innate place. "How do you know I can handle it?" asks Neddie. "Because you're the guy with the turtle," replies Melvin the shaman tautologically. The Neddiad is a fantastic odyssey that results in Neddie's widening of consciousness, allowing him to see beyond the surface of things, find friendship, and save the world against all the odds.
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